How Strong is Your Skeleton?

By: Michelle Gunnin

One Halloween during my childhood, I was waiting in our backyard to go trick or treating. I was dressed as a scarecrow.  This was in the days when you made your own costume from what you had readily available. Our backyard had grass and straw, so I was literally stuffing myself when I looked up and saw a skeleton climbing our back fence.  My heart skipped several beats.  I froze.  My eyes were glued on the glowing bones which were rapidly coming towards me.  I was squinting in the darkness to try to get my mind to understand what I was seeing; my mind felt that I should run and instructed my legs to do so.  In tears as I raced into the house, I was about to tell my entire family to hide from the skeleton, when the back door opened and in walked one of my brother’s friends.  My skeleton had a name.  Randy.  His costume was store bought and therefore, the coolest one around because it glowed in the dark.  I was embarrassed that the terror I felt came from my belief that the skeleton was real and dangerous.

I tell you this little story to illustrate a point.  When you write, you start with your skeleton.  Your story has to have strong bones so that you can put some meat on them.  Many writers I know are afraid of skeletons.  They brainstorm their ideas, but then they jump right into the writing without a plan of any kind.  They fear the structure will dampen their creativity, and that somehow they should run from skeletons.  However, in hindsight, they will realize that there is no need to be afraid because a skeleton is your friend.

If your writing is without a plan, it will ramble.  The points you are making will be lost in the illogical way they are strung together.  The research will be muddled, or the story will be unclear.  Every type of writing needs a skeleton to get started.  I find that among my students, this step is the one most likely to be skipped.  Yet, it is the one that eases the process of writing papers the most.  Back in my day, an outline was required before the rough draft was even started. The prewriting was a combination of random brainstorming first, and then taking those ideas and creating a plan in the form of an outline.  From there you did your research to see if your plan would work according to the latest data.  If not, you changed your plan and reworked it.  When all your notes, which were made on 3×5 index cards, were complete and situated into your outline, then you wrote your paper.  If you did the work on your skeleton correctly, the writing and filling in details was easy.

Nowadays, there are so many ways to build your skeleton that it can be confusing.  A simple outline form is still used, but there are also many graphic organizers, thinking maps, mind maps, webs, and story maps available.  Using them has become so complicated that we have scared students away from skeletons! They don’t know which one to use, how to choose, what to do once they have picked one, or, heaven forbid, what to do if they pick the WRONG one. If teachers teach planning at all, they focus more on the tool than the outcome of using it.  Planning is not taught to make writing harder, it is supposed to make it easier.  Thoughts should flow out smoothly once the writer has the order and plan together, and just because you learn these things as a younger writer in school, doesn’t mean you give them up when you are a “grown-up.”  They still work for us.  In fact, a well-developed story or research paper will not move properly from point to point without a skeleton underneath to hold it all together.  Here are a few ways to build your map.

  • Outline- This is the basic outline we all grew up with. The Roman numerals for the main ideas. The numbers indented for smaller details.  Then letters, then numbers and you keep indenting as you find more specific information for each subtopic.  Outlines have lasted this long for a reason.  It is still probably the best way to plan a research paper and most non-fiction writing will work with an outline. For fiction, it is not as effective.
  • Story map- Story maps are the fiction go-to planners. Your story line can be laid out in linear form, going from box to box across or down the page.  You can add as many boxes as you need because you can make multiple rows.  Within each box are the bullet points of action that will happen within the chapter.  This kind of organizer helps but is not super detailed in its layout.  If you are an extreme planner you may need a different format, or to adapt a story map to get in all your details.
  • Venn diagram- Venn diagrams are not just for note taking any more. Anytime you have to compare and contrast two items you can use one.  If you need me to jog your memory, it is the two overlapping circles where you write the differences in the outside portions of the circles, and the similarities where the circles overlap.  That small section in the center never has enough room so you may have to find a version that doesn’t have the circles but still uses the same idea for comparing two items. These are good when working on non-fiction that compares two different research articles, but will also work anytime you need to think through how things are alike and different.
  • Pro/Con List- We probably all know how to make a pro/con list. Two columns, one with reasons something is a good thing, and one with reasons it is a bad thing.  The list doesn’t have to be in paragraphs, in fact, it is more likely to be a bulleted list. These organizers are especially good when working on a persuasive piece because you can list your reasons, and the opposing reasons, which helps to lay out your evidence for why you think something is a good idea or not. In a proposal, or a letter to the editor, or any place you need to influence a decision, this kind of organizer can help to make your case.
  • Flow Chart- Flow charts show the organization of a process. Usually, they have boxes and arrows to show you the next step depending on what your decision was the previous step.  They are visual maps of how a process works.  In writing, you can use them for working through steps in an experiment or what will happen in a novel. They are versatile like that.  Flow charts can be very simple or super complex, but they are useful tools for writing in a couple of different genres.
  • Sequence chart- These are as simple as they sound. It is basically a list of the order of how things will go.  You can use boxes, similar to the story map, or you can just make it a numbered list.  In fiction, it is necessary to get the order of a story correct, so that your reader can follow the plot.  A sequence chart can help to lay out the way time flows in your story, especially if you are using flashbacks or jumping around in time.
  • Character sketch- This isn’t as much of a visual organizer as it is a mental one. When developing a character for a fictional story, a character sketch is important.  It consists of a list of questions and answers about the person you are creating.  Where are they from? What do they like to eat? Are they outgoing or shy? Do they like cold weather or do they prefer the beach?  Why?  What is their family background?  How does this affect their personality? The list of questions can be long or short but should get you inside your character.  That way, when you are writing, you know how this person will respond to situations because you kind of interviewed them before you began writing.

These are just a few types of skeletons you can use as a base for your story. There are more, but this gives you the idea.  Each type of writing has its own kind of organizer which works to help get things straight in a writer’s head, before ever beginning to write.  The planning is the “thinking” work of writing, and once it is finished, the creative work begins. You will find that it all flows much better if you have a strong skeleton. Remember, skeletons are your friends.

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  1. Hello Michelle. I just had to click on this intriguing title. I had no idea what to expect!

    Thank you for sharing this post with so many ideas about how to plan your writing projects. I’ve never heard of the Venn diagram and had no idea there were so many ways and tools for approaching writing outlines.

    An interesting, well-written and informative post (as usual). Thanks so much for sharing.

    P.S. Me too – loved the opening story used to illustrate.

  2. Wow the Software terminologies “Flow Charts” and “Sequence Diagrams” in Writing as well! That will be exciting to try out.
    I just hope I do not have to do any Waterfall, or Agile implementation, though Good writing can follow some nice iterative principles of Agile!

  3. Michelle, very well thought out. I will dig deeper into using it as a reference tool for myself. I liked your childhood story. There is so much information here to use. Thank you, John.

  4. Hi, Michelle. Nicely done and I like how you tend to include bulleted points for easy reading. Good job!

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