When to use an outline

Outlines and rough drafts

Composition textbooks recommend making an outline before drafting an essay. I won’t disagree that outlines can be helpful, but three practical concerns prevent me using an outline every time I write.

Outline?  No.

First, an outline is only as good as the ideas in it. If I am still mulling what to say and how to say it, making an outline doesn’t make sense for me. Instead, I start with my fuzzy ideas and freewrite. If all goes well, at some point that stream-of-consciousness might shift to serious writing.

Which brings up a second concern: an outline requires effort that might be better spent writing the essay. If an essay seems to be developing under my fingers, I am reluctant to stop typing and start organizing. Instead, I try to keep both the big picture and my next few points in mind as I work. Every few paragraphs, I look back up at the finished paragraphs to check that I am staying on track and not forgetting details. If the writing only needs to be a page or two, this seems to work well enough and an outline probably won’t happen. Instead, I will “cool” the writing and do revisions later.

Third, my laptop screen is too small to have both an outline and the essay document open side by side unless one or both is reduced in width. I find reduced documents annoyingly difficult to read, so either I must alternate between the outline and the essay and break the flow of my work, or I need to stop and create a paper copy of an outline.

Although I sometimes skip outlining, there are good reasons to make the effort.

Outline?  Yes.

Having an outline reminds me to work, not surf, which is sometimes reason enough to do one. After all, at some point the wide-ranging Google searches have to stop and the writing begin. Without an outline, I often spend too much time searching out too much information for my topic. (I admit that sometimes my surfing is about reading whatever interests me. Once I begin link-hopping, I can quickly move off-topic. Sometimes an outline’s biggest role is to remind me of what I should be doing!)

Another reason to make a paper copy outline: it’s a visual reminder of how I have subdivided a topic. Seeing where I have placed examples, facts, and quotations can show me where I need more material. If one section has grown disproportionately large, I know to refocus my attention to other points or consider narrowing my topic.

Outlines sometimes serve as a hybrid between brainstorming and freewriting. Even when points have been decided, writing a sentence or two for each can inspire new focus or new direction. Fitting facts into the various sections might inspire a search for new data or better examples. Once the words are on paper, contradictions might need weeding out or better yet, exploiting. Too many people assume outlines are stone tablets. Instead, think of outlines as scrapbooks, or mind maps, or Genius playlists!

Despite saying outlines might not be needed for short pieces of writing, there is one compelling reason I might do them even then: outlines focus my thinking when I am on short deadlines. If I don’t have time to rethink a wayward draft, then making an outline is essential.

How to outline

In my hands, “outline” seldom means roman numerals and indented letters; I prefer sticky-notes. Each note holds a fact, a quotation, or an example that I plan to include. Post-it notes are small, but I always write the notes as complete phrases or full sentences. (Single words, no matter how obvious they might seem when I write them, can transform into unfathomable mysteries later.) For example, my note doesn’t say “remind them about focus,” it says, “Narrowed focus on a topic requires specific (not general) details as support.”

If I am writing something short and won’t have many notes, I write them sticky edge at the bottom and then make a horizontal line of notes across the top edge of my computer screen. A quick glance up from my typing keeps me on track.

Longer pieces of writing have more categories and more details, so I color-code the sections. I use multiple colors of sticky-notes arranged on a cleared space on my desk or, if the writing will take several sessions, the back side of my office door. (If I am working away from my home office, I use the inside of our textbook cover as a storyboard. When the book is shut, the notes are both protected and kept with the textbook.)

Sticky-notes not your thing? Try colored index cards. And although I shudder at the tangle of lines that result from trying to indicate rearranged points, many of my students have preferred to write the outline on a single sheet of paper and mark sections with different colors of highlighters.

Time spent in researching a topic can be a major component of writing an essay. A tip:  do some but not all of your research before you construct an outline. Finding a few sources you want to quote will help you choose what you want to say and how you might narrow it. For example, writing about “Presidential politics” is career-long work for a writer and “the 2011 Presidential debates” would be the subject of long exposés, but writing about “why Romney was successful in the  2011 New Hampshire debate” is an essay-length topic with an outline likely to be one page or less. Once you have a narrowed topic and an outline, you’ll know what research is still needed to fill in the missing details.

To outline your work, break your topic into reasonable aspects for discussion, divide each of those into tentative plans for facts and examples, and then get busy researching. Go the extra step and follow a few links from the webpages you are reading: you might find an extra detail that adds some zing.

(If you need help creating an outline from someone else’s writing, read Creating an annotated outline.)