The University 411: On the Use and Abuse of Outlines

Today we’re talking outlines, and how to use them effectively. While sitting down and writing one sentence and then the next may seem a logical approach to tackling a project, processing information doesn’t always follow a linear trajectory. As we discussed with concept mapping, your brain might be jumping all over the place with ideas. So if you’re staring at a blank page and you’re not sure where to start, OR if you have a completed draft but you’re not sure if your work is coherent and logical to follow, you may want to consider creating an outline.

If you’re staring at a blank page, try concept or mind mapping first. It’s okay if your map is chaotic and all over the place. We’ll look at this as draft 1 of mapping. From there, take out a different coloured pen and number your map, or if you’re using an app, move the bubbles around. Identify the major concepts or ideas and identify a linear order. Identify your key components and sub-components in a 1, 2, 3 format. These should be simple statements that you can then expand or add details to. And voila! You no longer have a blank page. You have an outline that you can build off of.

Note that some instructors might require you to have an outline. If you’re submitting a science paper, you might have to use a specific format: introduction, hypothesis, methodology, data, analysis, conclusion. Technically, this format is an outline. If you’re in the humanities, your instructor might require you to submit a similar outline as an assignment before preparing a larger research project. However, unless it’s required by your instructor or you’re about to engage in a larger project (which we’ll discuss tomorrow), an outline isn’t strictly necessary. You haven’t failed or done something wrong because you haven’t used an outline. An outline should be used as an aid if you’re stuck – something to get you to the next step – and not something to focus on and worry about. So don’t stress if your outline isn’t neat and tidy, or if you end up moving away from it altogether. You don’t need to stick to your outline like you’ve taken a blood oath. You can revise your outline as you need to or ignore it completely if the ideas are just flowing out of you and looking at your outline will halt that process. Return to it if you get stuck again.

A handwritten outline of one of my job applications. Outlines are useful everywhere.

Although most people consider using outlines at the start of a project, it can also be useful at later stages. You should review your initial outline to make sure you haven’t forgotten to include a crucial point. As well, you can also make a new outline to confirm that your thoughts and ideas follow a logical process. Sit down with your project and identify the key points in each section or paragraph. Write this down on a separate sheet of paper. This is your new outline. Take a good look at it and see if, without needing any extra details, someone can follow your outline in a logical progression. If you’ve identified your objectives and audience before you started the project, go back to these and make sure your outline addresses all of these points (or sit down and identify your objectives now and make sure you’re tackled them all). You can also ask a friend or study group to look over the outline. (This approach cuts down work for your friends if they only have to look at a page or two instead of the entire project.)

If you discover with your new outline that your ideas are hard to follow, it’s okay to swamp around ideas and move them until they fall into place. This is completely fine and normal. Re-drafting is good because you’re making your work better. It’s not a failure if you need to restructure your work. Tomorrow we’ll continue our discussion of using outlines for the re-drafting process, focusing on students who need to create a large piece of work (such as a dissertation). Until then, take care of yourselves.

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