Smudging the lines of the outline

Madeline Walker’s post, Writing undressed, made me think about my process of planning for academic writing and my beliefs about it. It also reminded me of a conversation we had a few months ago about the value of making an outline before starting to write.

I am all about planning. Before writing a paper, journal article, or a thesis chapter, I always spend a long time mind mapping and creating an outline. I try to make sure I know what my thesis statement is and how many sub-points I need to support that thesis. I organize all my ideas and try to imagine the line of argument as specifically as possible. Then I order the ideas on an outline and try to make it so detailed that I end up with topic sentences for each paragraph, basically creating a template for my paper that I will fill in later with supporting sentences for each paragraph.

My conversation with Madeline was on the effectiveness of this approach. She raised a question about the possibility of having such a detailed outline before writing, whether we really can know exactly what we want to say before we start to write, and I defended the idea of preparing before writing, that the argument can get off track and confusing unless we have such a specific outline before we start.

Kaveh Tagharobi is a graduate student and an EAL specialist at the CAC

Reading her blog post about the stages of undress, however, I now see what she meant that day. Those stages of disarray that Writing undressed talks about are so familiar for me as well. With all my mind maps and topic sentence outlines, I constantly find myself reorganizing, merging and adding paragraphs, and even changing direction altogether. My apparently carefully dressed outline gets disrobed during the writing process, as I discover that two of my main ideas are actually the same and need to be merged, or that I need one more paragraph to discuss this or that topic.

But does this mean that I give up on my outlines? Probably not. I still see the value in having the road map outlined before I embark on writing, even if I have to accept that this is only tentative. I believe I can at least draw a sketch of my outline and then be prepared to smudge the lines as I write. The number of modifications and alterations probably depends on the complexity of that particular piece of writing I am working on. I think I can make my outline with more certainty when I am writing a five paragraph essay for a first-year English course, and I probably should expect more changes when I am writing the first draft of my thesis.

I still think that I would be too lost if I start writing without an outline, but after reading Madeline’s post, now I feel much more comfortable when I adjust the outline as I write. The outline is the suit that I thought I’d wear to the party, dry-cleaned and carefully laid down on the bed, but my room is a mess with all my wardrobe out and I am trying them all on and throwing them around before I am happy with the look I want to leave the house with…or to submit my manuscript!

Kaveh Tagharobi is an EAL (English as an additional language) Specialist at the Centre for Academic Communication.  He is also in the English Department’s MA Program with a concentration in Cultural, Social, and Political Thought.

4 thoughts on “Smudging the lines of the outline

  1. I found the two posts examining the orderly outline approach and the more organic approach very helpful. As I turns out I am a hybrid of the two approaches, and both impulses arise from my love of analysis. So let me share this example. I have finished my field work and I’m now faced with thousands of pages of interview transcripts and survey responses. Where to start. Well my organized self needs to have places to put all this data so my first step is to prepare an outline usually starting with the thesis or purpose of the research and then organizing the outline to reflect the broad groups of questions I asked: for instance, impacts of globalization, attributes of a sustainable economy, governance and decision making, etc.. Really I am just making slots to dump content into. The next step is to fill all those slots, sieving through all the data and selecting key elements which I dump into the appropriate box.

    I am always very excited at this point; can’t wait to read the fruits of my labour. This is followed by despair at what appears to a number of categorical dogs’ breakfasts. Disgusted I go for a two hour walk in the forest or by the sea or both. Suddenly themes, clarifications, organizing principles seem to effortlessly emerge from my brain.

    I go back and apply these new insights — thank heavens for cut and paste, as I move some sections around and excise others. Now it is starting to feel like it makes more sense. For me this is an iterative process which I might go through four or five times. When I finally have all the data organized, I ask the question — beyond answering question ‘x’ what does this data tell me and why is it important? This usually results in cutting out anything that is superficial or repetitive to the emerging theories until I feel I have captured the essence of the arguments.

    Other than the very high level outline that I submitted in the research proposal (introduction, research question and context, literature, methodology and then the content chapters and conclusions) I am still feeling my way regarding how the primary issues and arguments are going to unfold. It is at this point that I revisit the literature. Two things usually happen: I find literature that either confirms or challenges my emerging theories, or I find gaps in my lit review that need to be filled. So back to the library.

    As I said this is an iterative process, each time structure comes more sharply into focus, the literature gaps are filled, and the logic which now derives from the data. And sometimes I am surprised to find that the end product fairly closely resembles the structure described in my research proposal.

    This is a very long way of saying that sometimes you have to trust that what appears to be chaos will resolve itself into coherence. The benefit of this approach is that I don’t lose critical ideas simply because they don’t fit within my preconceived structure. Go with the flow is not for everyone, but long forest walks definitely help.

    1. Thank you so much, Dyan, for sharing your experience with outlining and organizing! Hearing about others’ processes of planning, writing, and revising is absolutely invaluable.

      I completely agree that clarity in writing has a way of rising from chaos. You start with a main question, a purpose, and a sketchy outline, but then you go through a messy process that only leads to clarity after a few iterations (and many long walks, of course). I see the outline as the lodestar that guides you to the land you want to discover, but then you really have to survey it inch by inch to finally find what you are looking for. In this sense, the chaotic phase is not just “okay” to go through but actually necessary in order to gain clarity in the end.

  2. I am so glad that you liked the post, Janet!

    We will be very proud if this blog becomes a place for grad students to form a community of writers, just like the wonderful environment you created over the years.

    Well, you yourself were the sartorial superstar of writing communities, and this is not to continue with the metaphor! 😉

  3. Kaveh, your image of the beautifully pressed suit and your entire ‘messy’ wardrobe of thought is beautiful! (well, you know what I mean). It certainly hit home for me.

    I am so grateful that this blog exists and cannot wait to read some thoughts from grad students as the sense of writing community develops!

    Oh, and I do like your outfits!


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