I’ve been gone for too long, but have topics galore to catch up on!!!
I believe outlining is a skill that is often glanced over or forgotten about during out pursuit to turn out grants, manuscripts, and other written documents. However, it is something that can be invaluable, from the shortest abstract to a book chapter (or book if you are an intrepid writer)!
Why outline?? I was recently helping a graduate student with her dissertation prospectus/proposal. In the past I had helped her with manuscripts. In all instances she showed dire need to develop outlining skills. Her ideas where jumping all over the place, there was no connection between (and often within) paragraphs, and she would often leave out central concepts/ideas vital to understanding and making her argument, while repeating other ones that didn’t need repetition. This just left me frustrated and confused, and made it very difficult for me to help her improve what she had written, because too much was missing or inappropriate. Therefore, before I attempted to edit I sat down with her to review the importance and basics of outlining. By outline you will help yourself write better, and help people help YOU to improve what you have written! In other words, they will be able to give you constructive help off the bat, and not make lots of notes like, “connection to or reasoning for this unclear”.
First thing you need to remember when doing an outline is that it is just a guide. IT IS NOT SET IN STONE! Outlines are there to help your organize you thoughts, not force to you a ridged structure. I cannot tell you the number of times my outlines have been turned inside out once I started writing. The key is it gave me a focus point to get my writing started, and direction to flow the writing towards. Having an outline will help to ensure that you cover all the main points you need to discuss, that you connect similar ideas in the same area, and that you don’t repeat yourself in embarrassing ways.
Second, consider what you are writing and your audience. Outline layouts will differ depending on what you are working on, and sometimes who you are writing for.
Abstracts – I gave a general template for writing abstracts before in Abstract Writing. Abstracts tend to be pretty straight forward, so this may be all you ever need. If you have to write an epic abstract, say for your dissertation, just add more detail in under each section.
Comprehensive Exam Questions – Depending on your format, you may be writing this sitting in a room being watched and timed, not being watched but timed, or just preparing an oral response. Either way, outlining your response before you start writing or talking is key, but in this case it will likely be brief and general with few details. Remember, start with a statement that reiterates the question. This helps make it clear to the committee that you understood the question. This is especially true if you are given an oral question and giving an oral answer. For oral response, if you are prepping for being in the room, make a real outline, but it is still perfectly acceptable to jot down a few outlining notes before starting a response to an oral question. Imagine watching the Presidential debates. Before they answer you usually see them scribbling a few things. They also do this while their opposition is talking, so that they are ready to rebut and respond. Trust me, it is better to take the moment before responding. If the committee sees you are making a note or two on paper before your respond they will realize that you aren’t reaching for an answer, but are thinking things through before responding. Even if you have NO CLUE and you brain is racing, it will make you look better than just talking off the cuff with a bunch of unorganized thoughts. It can also help stop the racing thoughts.
Manuscripts/Thesis/Dissertation – Start with the format required by the journal. So something like: Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion. Then start filling in the key parts needed under each section. For example, in the introduction write the leading off statement that says what the meat of the document is about vs. some vague statement. In other words, avoid “throat clearing” statements that you are using to ease yourself into writing, or you think the audience might need to prep their brain for reading you paper. (You can still WRITE it, just leave it in the outline). Then generally it is best to outline introductions from broad ideas to narrow. These should still be broad statements like, History, Recent Findings, Questions Raised, and Current Research. The last is important, because it really focuses your reader so they can better understand your methods. Then start under each adding details. This should include the main points and papers you need to mention/discuss. I even will put a partial citation in as I do this. THIS will help your writing flow more later, because you won’t be hunting citations.
Presentations – I can’t tell you the number of times I wanted to scream, “Did you outline this first?!” at the last meeting I attended. Outlining the flow of your power point presentations is as important as outlining a written document!! Make sure you are giving adequate background, not introducing new concepts in inappropriate places, and give adequate attention to each part of the presentation. This will help you decide what needs to be on the slide vs. what you can just say. In other words, it helps reduce presentations that have slides cluttered with a lot of words and the presenter is just reading the slides. Have you EVER found such presentations to be memorable/stimulating? Not likely. Outlining will even allow you to anticipate questions, so you can prep “hidden” slides to help answer such questions.
Grants – Again, start with the format they require. Each section tends to be independent of each other; so outlining each section as if it was an independent document can help (or is necessary!). This is not to say you need to rehash everything each time, but remind the reader about important ideas/concepts. Then proceed filling out the outline with details you need to cover. This will help you see what information is really needed (i.e., are you including key items AND do you really need to mention that other item), which will help make sure you are presenting ideas in a logical flow. This will help you refine and limit what you are saying, which are valuable things to be able to do when page space is at a premium!
Lastly, before you start writing, try discussing your outline with a peer or mentor. This is for the same reason you should have someone read your other written documents: to get input. Outlining can be personal as we all have our own style, but talking someone through the outline can help you find holes/flaws that you are not seeing. Fixing these from the beginning will help improve your first draft!
As I have said before, I am still a big fan of free writing your first draft, and outlining does not change this conviction. A well-planned outline will help this free writing FLOW out of you! It will help focus you AND unstick you when you brain gets lost on what to say next. I find taking the time to do an outline will help reduce procrastination time and time spent writing. Actually, sometimes I work on and tweak my outline to procrastinate, and this helps get me to writing.
Ok. I did not outline this… did I forget anything?