Outlines: How They Can Improve Your Writing

"Measure twice. Cut once." -- Construction workers' saying.

An outline is a tool that helps writers determine whether they have enough raw material (in the form of quotations from scholarly sources and/or data from original research) to construct a particular argument. With experience, many writers learn that using an outline leads to better work, in less time.

Let us imagine that Sally Slacker and Gus Goodwright have both made a false assumption that causes them to misunderstand a writing task. Both begin to work under the influence of that falsehood, and both recognize their mistake while they are trying to formulate a conclusion. While Sally Slacker needs to throw away a lot of work and start over, Gus Goodstudent recovers easily.

Sally Slacker's Approach

After skimming through a few web pages, Sally launches directly into writing a detailed introduction, based upon her initial understanding of the issues. She is convinced that she will save time by producing her whole paper, in one sitting, from start to finish, without bothering with an outline.

Figuring that she will be finished as soon as she reaches the required number of pages, she invests a lot of time crafting each sentence and paragraph. But when she starts searching for supporting evidence, she discovers that there is no way that she is going to be able to support all the claims she has written. In fact, she learns that some of the claims she wanted to make are flat wrong! She only notices her mistake when she got to page 4 of a 5-page assignment, when she finally has to admit that her argument simply falls apart.

Perhaps she misunderstood the definition of a word, or she had only skimmed a textbook chapter that her professor expected her to know thoroughly. Whatever the cause of the problem, Sally has two options: either she turns in an unsupported paper (after struggling valiantly to distort the conclusion into something that might sound acceptable), or she deletes almost everything she has written and starts over from scratch. 

How much time do you think she has saved herself in that case?

Gus Goodwright's Approach

Gus, meanwhile, has misunderstood the writing task just as badly as Sally did. He is not particularly smarter than she, nor does he know any more about the subject. The crucial difference is that, instead of rushing to churn out pages right away, Gus writes down lists of words and ideas, finding quotes and statistics, and arranging his findings in an outline.

Instead of dividing his mental energies by trying to fill pages while at the same time exploring the topic (as Sally has done), Gus sensibly focuses on one thing at a time. He first figures out what he wants to say (which requires some research). After he has developed a basic understanding of the topic, he composes a thesis statement that he thinks he can support with the research he has already done. Then, he starts collecting quotations from his sources. (If he is the rugged pioneer type, he might actually copy the quotations down on index cards... but he might also save them in a separate word processor file, grouped according to subject.)

Gus makes sure that his thesis makes a clear, supportable statement, and that his thesis paragraph includes a blueprint for the argument he wants to build. Once he is happy with this basic structure, he starts assembling the quotations that he has already found. Then, he roughs out the connections he wants to make and the transitions that show how the relationships between the various sub-points all advance his argument. If he does not have enough evidence to support a particular point, he has three options: he may go back to the library and find additional support, he may drop that point and hope the main thesis will stand without it, or he may actually change the thesis to something that he can support with the evidence he has already collected.

Because Gus has not, at this point, invested any time in crafting any of his supporting paragraphs, he has little to lose by exploring, backtracking, cutting, and trying again. Each of his later paragraphs examines one point in detail, and provides a conclusion that demonstrates the progress that paragraph has made towards proving the thesis statement.

Further Reading

Writing and Using Outlines
This small collection of pages was written for engineering students, but applies to anyone who needs to be convinced that investing time in a good outline will help them avoid organizational and logical pitfalls.

Prototypes in Technical Writing: What Are They?
A good prototype will help you identify flaws (research gaps or mistaken assumptions) long before you have dug yourself into a hole by investing a lot of time in it. A sculptor makes a scale model in clay -- a prototype -- before chiseling away at a full-sized chunk of marble. It it much easier to fix major mistakes in clay than it is to throw away a ruined chunk of marble and start over again.

How to Write an Outline
An outline breaks down the parts of your thesis in a clear, hierarchical manner. Most students find that writing an outline before beginning the paper is most helpful in organizing one's thoughts. If your outline is good, your paper should be easy to write.

Dennis G. Jerz
02 Mar 2001 -- first posted
05 Aug 2004 -- minor updates

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