Best Practices for Students #4: Outline

My, my, we do hate the idea of outlining, don’t we? Most people think of an outline as a rigid straightjacket hampering the flow of true creativity. But guess what – the writers you admire most for their creativity almost without fail are outliners (and those that aren’t are lying – they most likely keep an outline in their heads and trust their memories to keep it straight). The reason is simple – an outline takes most of the work of organizing and structuring their writing off their shoulders, which means they are free to actually be creative.

A good outline is a map to your goals – and like any good map, as you follow along you’ll see new and often more interesting ways to get where you’re going. But you wouldn’t set off on a long journey without any map at all, would you? (The popularity of online services like Google Maps, Mapquest, and Yahoo Maps suggests not.) An outline serves primarily as a reminder, helping you to keep the end goal in sight and to evaluate your progress along the way. It’s also a pretty good charm against writer’s block – many prolific writers say that when they don’t know what to write next, they just check their outline and crank out pages, however crappy. Knowing what to do next helps bring them around to their next point, even if they have to detour a little to get there. There’s always editing (remember?).

Of course, in high school, you were probably given a complicated set of Roman numerals, capital and lower-case letters, and numbers and sub-sets and superscripts and… Forget all that. An outline doesn’t have to be any more complex than a list of points you want to cover and the order you want to cover them in. The more detail you capture at the beginning of your project, though, the easier it will be to develop your work later on. Once you have a list of topics, it’s a good idea to go back and fill in some sub-topics, even sub-sub-topics. I use a program called Keynote for this, even though the author stopped updating it two years ago. Keynote is an outliner program, with a nice text editor built in, so I can write the body of my article directly into my outline. It’s a process of gradual accumulation: I list the topics I want to write on, then add sub-topics and sub-sub-topics, then crank through them one by one, writing a paragraph or two for each sub-topic. Then I export the whole thing to Word (from the “File” menu), clean it up, and add a line here or there where the transition from one point to the next seems rocky.

But you don’t need specialized software to make a decent outline. A piece of paper with some scribbled notes is good, too. The point is to have something, some idea of what you want to write and how you want to write it, before you start writing in earnest. You’ll find that once the outline is done, most of the thought process is finished – the rest of the paper just flows into place. And because you’ve already worried about what facts are needed to support each part of your argument, you don’t have to worry about it when you’re writing – which means you can focus on crafting wonderful, creative sentences.

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