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Outline key elements of your story, poem, or essay with one simple exercise

As I was reorganizing files last week, I found a writing exercise I’d done that helped me see how I could quickly sketch out the outline of a story from beginning to end in about 12 to 15 sentences (or more depending on how deep you want to take it).

I discovered the exercise in the book Writing and Publishing Personal Essays by Sheila Bender. She assigns it to help her students practice collecting sensory images. She credits a poem by poet Charles Proctor as the inspiration.

It’s a good focusing tool to note the key elements of a writing idea and chart the beginning, moments of conflict, middle, and resolution. And it works whether you’re writing a poem, memoir, short story, or novel.

Start by writing the words, “This is a poem/story/essay/novel about.” Then list the key elements, including turning points and conflict. End with a summary line of what your story is ultimately about. Don’t think too much about it. Just write. If you’ve been struggling to find a missing piece, you may be surprised by what this exercise reveals.

Here is Proctor’s poem to give you an idea on a micro level of how it could work.

This Is a Poem

This is a poem about going to work.

This is a poem about the floating bridge route.

This is a poem about a reversible lane.

This is a poem about being passed from the right.

This is a poem about being cut in front of.

This is a poem about swerving hard to the left.

This is a poem about a skid.

This is a poem about a roll.

This is a poem about a Renault, without seat belts.

This is a poem about rolling broadside down the highway.

This is a poem about trust.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. I never thought to use an outline for poem, but I’m going to give a whirl.

    March 15, 2012
    • Hi Rena, I’m glad you’re going to do it! I tried it and came up with some sensory images that I liked. Now, I’m going to revise and refine them into a different structure. Let me know how it goes.

      March 15, 2012

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