When editing for students, I am regularly asked to provide input on the structure and clarity of a given paper. Often, the author has a clear idea of how the argument is meant to progress, the major points along the way, and how each point contributes to the conclusion. Other times, however, the paper is a jumble of assorted facts, all more or less related to the paper’s topic but presented in an almost random fashion. When I encounter such papers, it’s clear to me that the author has neglected an absolutely essential step in good academic writing: making an outline.
Indeed, outlining is perhaps the number one thing that I am consistently recommending to academic writers. Of course, it’s easy to understand why someone would choose to skip this step. Making an outline can be tedious; it lacks the fun of putting words together, and one occasionally feels as if one is stacking very delicate blocks on top of another. I have myself often found that, while making an outline, a new insight will require a complete overhaul of the design, occasionally forcing me to start from scratch. Moreover, I have rarely found myself sticking to my outlines with any kind of rigor. Nevertheless, outlining is vital to producing coherent argumentation and paper structure.
In antiquity, rhetoricians taught their students to think of a speech or argument as an animal, with the conclusion or point to be made as the head. Every piece of the organism should contribute to this head in some concrete way. This is precisely the kind of thinking that drives good academic writing, and the outline is a tool to achieve precisely the same goal. The outline is the blueprint, or skeleton, that will structure the rest of the paper, guiding each thought into the appropriate channels, thereby contributing to the whole.
Whenever discussing outlines with writers, I recommend starting with the broadest strokes: what is the main point of this paper? What is the head of the animal (so to speak)? From here, one can begin to divide the limbs in progressively increasing detail. Given that a certain point is to be made, what are the broadest components of that point? What are the components of those components? As the detail increases, the outline begins to come together. I generally recommend outlining to the level of the paragraph, since the paragraph forms an appropriately manageable unit by which to structure a paper. If you know the main points that each paragraph is going to make, then you have a clear sense of the paper as a whole. Once this degree of detail has been reached, the only thing left to do is tweak the order of information so as to be as logical as possible and refine the details of each point.
Of course, once one begins to actually write, the outline can often fade into the background. While one should always try to stick to an outline in principle, it’s perfectly appropriate to deviate as the writing process unfolds. The important thing is that the writing process is natural while remaining controlled. Sticking too rigidly to an outline when one’s train of thought and imagination is leading in an alternative direction can stifle one’s writing, leading to stuffy, uninspired prose. At the worst, such writing may even become a “flattening” of the outline itself, in which the paper is reduced to a series of bullet points in sentence format. Alternatively, ignoring the outline completely (or failing to make one in the first place) almost always causes one to wander. At worst, this can lead to long tangents with no relevance to the subject or to a scattering of ideas similar to the paper-as-bullet point, but with no discernible order. The challenge and fun of writing academic papers comes from balancing these two poles. The best writers are able to present information in a strictly logical and coherent fashion in a manner that is also deeply compelling, even poetic. Some of these writers may even have reached the point of being able to outline primarily in their own heads, rather than on paper (or on a screen, as the case may be). For the rest of us, however, an outline remains an essential tool.