The University 811: Using Outlines for Proposals and Redraftin

As I talked about in yesterday’s post, if you’re about to engage in a large project (such as a dissertation), outlines can be incredibly useful. You might already have an outline, although you might not consider it as one. If you’ve started thinking about your work in sections or chapters, you’ve technically started drafting an outline. The longer or bigger the project, the more outline drafts you will have, before you even start the project itself. I’m about to start my next big research project (a book) and I am currently on my 10th draft of the outline. As your outline might need to be reviewed and approved by another person before you even start (maybe your supervisor or the college/department that you’re applying to), you will have to revise your outline according to their feedback. That doesn’t mean you can’t move away from your outline later. Instead, your outline shows that you have some grasp of what you intend to do and can start your project immediately. You won’t be wasting crucial time trying to figure out first steps. In my case, my outline needs to be approved by the editors/publishers who are looking at my book proposal as well as the funding body for the fellowship I’m applying for. If you’re asking people to invest time and/or money into you, then you need to demonstrate that you can follow their guidance in order to create a strong product.

Draft 10 of the outline of my next book presented in outline view from Scrivener

But outlines aren’t only useful at the start of a project. If you’re engaged in a larger project, it can also be incredibly useful while revising your work. If you’ve ever received feedback that “your ideas are good, but your presentation needs re-structuring,” that means you need an outline; the person reviewing your work couldn’t follow the logical order of your thoughts. In this case, sit down with a new sheet of paper or a new document and go through your existing project. Identify the major point of each section without including any details. Just the key ideas, written up in short, simple sentences or phrases. If you have sections, then this can be just the key idea of each section, or maybe 3-4 ideas in each section. (I’m just throwing around numbers here; it depends entirely on the size of your project.)

In any case, the key ideas that you’ve extracted is your new outline. Looking at your new outline, make sure that every point leads the next logical point. Are there areas where you jump from one point to a completely different point without any connection? Are there ideas that you should move up front, in order to understand the rest of your project better? Honestly, I think almost every single editor, reviewer, or supervisor that has looked at my work had told me at some point “this needs to be moved up higher, Chuckie!” as I seem to write back to front. So it’s perfectly okay if your work needs a major overhaul. Keep in mind that, while it’s impossible to move EVERY single idea up to the front, you should gesture or foreshadow them; make a statement like “defined below,” or “see section x” or “we will come back to this in our discussion of x”. As well, your introduction or abstract (and every project regardless of the field should have one) should have a mini-outline, where you identify what you will be doing. Finally, make sure you’ve addressed all your objectives for each section and that this comes across in your new outline. If it’s not obvious from your outline of key pints and is instead buried in the details, then you might need to put more work into addressing your objectives.

If you’re getting close to submitting your dissertation – or are post-submission and are now preparing for publication, you might want to consider an outline taken at a paragraph level. Each paragraph should start with a sentence that introduces the topic of that paragraph. Ideally, if you look at just your first sentence of each paragraph, you should be able to identify if your thoughts are following a logical order. (See my example below.) Again, Scrivener is fantastic for this. You can split up the document paragraph by paragraph easily using the highlighted selection (the first sentence) with each split.

Screenshot of Scrivener

You can then go to outline view and drag and drop the paragraphs around if they seem out of place. A simple compile function will reintegrate all the paragraphs back into one document. (You should then go through and make sure that if you moved paragraphs, you’ve smoothed any awkward transitions.) Here in the example below, I’ve taken apart the introduction of my draft for chapter 5. Right away, I could see that a point is missing, that I’ve made a jump or buried a point that should be presented as its own paragraph/topic. I’ll go back and re-examine those paragraphs to see if I should split a large paragraph into two or if I need another new paragraph entirely. The objective of this exercise is by taking the first sentence of each paragraph, I’ve formed a mini-paragraph, one that’s comprehensible even without extraneous detail.

Outline of Draft Chapter 5 (i.e. just the first sentence of each paragraph)

Of course, there are other ways to ensure that your project follows a logical format. You don’t have to go to the sentence/paragraph-level that I have done. And if you have any tips or advice for how to (re)-structure your work, please do share! I’d love to hear more ideas for how you restructure and revise later stages of work.

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