Research and Outlining: Which Comes First?

This week I started my next project for Red Line.  Next Thursday I have to turn in Chapter 1, an outline, and a bibliography.

One of my students wanted to know if I research or outline first.  This is one of those the chicken or the egg kinds of questions.  In most cases I work on them simultaneously.

When Redline asked me to write about the Ancient Maya, I was faced with a topic that was far too broad for a single book.  I could write about their cities, how they lived, their religion or their science.  I could write about how we have learned about them and what we don’t know.  The theories about why their civilization declined are numerous.  Mayan technology, mathematics and agriculture are all worthy topics and far to vast to squeeze into one volume.

Fortunately, Abdo had given me a list of things to include so that the book would parallel the others in the series.  I used this list as a rough outline.  With that in hand, I started my research.  I needed the topics in the outline because simply searching on the Maya was too broad. With that kind of search the material I found wouldn’t be focused or detailed enough.  But with the topics I could find what I needed to know to create a detailed outline.

So the process goes like this:

Read the spec sheet.

Do a small amount of research, looking for topics that would make good chapters.

Create a rough outline, possible just with the chapter titles.

Research and outline chapter 1.  Research and outline chapter 2.  Etc.

Is this method perfect?  Not really. Sometimes I’ll discover information that isn’t in the outline but should be so I have to combine chapters. Sometimes a topic turns out to be too narrow to carry a chapter.  But this is when I want to find these things out. Editors generally don’t consider your outline to be the final word but it does let them know what you consider important and which topics you plan to cover.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some research to do and an outline to smooth out.

–SueBE