I admire organized people. I really do. They have planners and charts and spreadsheets and pay their bills on time, and generally seem to have their stuff together. That’s probably pretty cool.
I am not an organized person, so I wouldn’t know. I spend a lot of my time at the ragged edge of disaster, staring into the abyss. Some of this is just because life (or my life, at least) tends to laugh at neatly organized plans and go pear-shaped at the least convenient times. Some of it, though, is because forcing myself to use planners and charts and spreadsheets makes me feel like little pieces of my soul are dying—I get that they’re useful tools, they’re just not something that work well with my personality.
What does this have to do with writing? Here’s the fun part: I am not an organized person, and I don’t particularly want to be an organized person, but I recognize that a well-organized essay is more effective (and more likely to get a good grade) than a poorly-organized one. So to organize my thoughts and get an idea of how to structure an essay without using charts or outlines or other more rigid organizational tools that feel like they’re trying to narrow my thoughts in unproductive ways, sometimes I make lists. Just lists: lists of words I might want to use, lists of concepts I might or should cover, lists of partial thoughts and sentences, lists of questions, lists of ways I could argue or support a point. Sometimes my lists end up with sub-lists and turn into informal outlines, but they’re still loose enough that I feel like I have room for my thoughts to flow and change direction if necessary. I can start organizing my ideas without feeling like I’m strangling them.
“But wait!” you say. “I love charts! I can’t write unless I have my ideas in a spreadsheet! What are you saying, you monster!?” Chillax, friends! I’m not saying you should burn your outlines and dance on the ashes—if outlines or charts or spreadsheets work for you, that’s awesome. Keep up the good writing! But the more I work with writers, the more I realize that there are a lot of different ways to come at writing, and that what works for one writer, or even the majority of writers, might not work for all writers. So if you have tried the charts and spreadsheets and outlines and sometimes feel, like me, that it’s like trying to force a square peg into a round hole, then I offer you list-making: organization for the organization-phobic. It’s just one more tool to put into your writing toolbox. Maybe you’ll find it more useful than the hammer you’ve been trying to write with. Or maybe you’ll pick it up, try it once, and say “nah, not for me. I’m going back to the hammer.” It’s all good. Find what works for you! Writing is a big wide world, and you have lots of options.