Category Archives: Road map

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.