The Right Way to Think About Outlining


Writing instructors will always encourage you to write an outline for your essay beforehand, before you start writing full paragraphs and worrying about word choice and sentence structure. I’m not going to disagree, I think outlining is an essential tool for writing. But there’s a misconception about outlining that I want to clear up before we go any further.

A Common Misconception About Outlining

What’s the misconception? The misconception is that outlining is something you do, and complete, before you start the “real” writing. The misconception is that you’re supposed to have the outline all worked out, and then you start writing. Writing is like putting flesh on the skeleton that you’ve pre-built, and when the skeleton is fully fleshed out, you have a completed draft of your essay.

It would be great if real writing worked like this, but it almost never does.

In a real writing project of any significance or substance, you don’t know in advance how the completed draft is going to look. You may start out with a plan, but almost always, that plan gets altered as you work your way through the piece.

In other words, the outline itself is something that evolves over time.

And this is the way it is for everyone. It’s not a defect of your writing that the structure changes over time, it’s a natural part of the writing process. Getting the structure of your essay right is an achievement; the process of writing is the means by which you discover and create this structure.

How to Think About Outlining

Here’s a better way to think of the relationship between your outline and the arrangement of sentences and paragraphs that comprises your actual writing.

Your outline gives you a higher level overview of the organizational features of your writing, at a level of description that abstracts away from the details of word choice and sentence structure.

You can vary the level of abstraction. At a very high level, the outline might be “introduction”, “main body”, “conclusion”. That’s a helpful abstraction, if you have trouble remembering that these are distinct parts of an essay, and your essay needs all these parts.

At lower levels of abstraction — or a higher level of resolution, if you want to put that way — your outline might capture the internal structure of a section of your paper, or even a single paragraph.

So, the image I have is an x-ray machine that lets you see through the flesh of your writing and focus your attention on the skeletal structure of your essay. Problems with essay structure are like broken or misaligned bones, or missing bones.

The function of the outline is to make it easier to see and diagnose these structural issues. To properly diagnose an issue you may need to adjust the resolution of the x-ray and take snapshots of different parts of the skeleton. That corresponds to creating outlines of different parts of your essay, at different levels of detail or abstraction.

So, the metaphor I’m developing here is an x-ray analogy, and what I’m suggesting is that you think of outlining as a diagnostic tool for finding and fixing structural problems in your essay. And just as with an x-ray of a patient, you can do this at any time in the writing process, not just at the beginning.

Now, there are limits to this x-ray metaphor. The limits are most apparent when we want to talk about the relationship between essay structure and the actual words and sentences and paragraphs you use to communicate the ideas in the essay.

In a real skeleton, the bones are real, and muscles and tissue are physically attached to the bones. You can take away the flesh and the bones remain, the bones have a reality independent of the flesh.

In an essay, it’s different. What the reader encounters, when they read your text, is the text. Words, sentences, paragraphs — that’s all there is. The structural features of an essay don’t exist independently of the text.

So in this respect, sketching an outline for an essay is like deciding on a set of structural features that you want your text to possess. But you can’t communicate that structure directly — it’s only in the writing that these structural features are realized. The reader needs to extract the structure from the specific string of words that you have chosen to write down. There’s no shortcut that lets the reader bypass this process.

So the relationship between essay structure and the text is much more intimate, and because of this, it’s much more challenging to successfully communicate. Even small changes in the text can correspond to large changes in the logical structure of an essay.

And the structure will naturally change over time, anyway. What typically happens in the writing process is that, as you struggle to find the right language to express the structural goals of the text, you’re simultaneously rethinking how to articulate an idea or an argument. And in thinking these ideas and arguments through in detail, you’ll begin to think differently about them, and you’ll may end up pursuing a different line of reasoning than you had originally intended. This happens all the time.

But when you do this, you’re changing the structure of the text. Consequently, you’re changing the outline.

This is a fundamental feature of the writing process. The outline of your essay will change and evolve as the text evolves and as you work through your ideas and try out different ways of expressing them.

This is another reason why it’s important to not think of outlining as something you do before you start writing. Your essay has an outline that is continually evolving as you work through the essay. At any time you can step back and take a structural snap-shot of your essay, to get a better handle on what’s going on, at the structural level.


Wrap up:

An outline is a structural snap-shot of your essay.

Outlining is the process of intentionally taking a structural snap-shot for the purpose of diagnosing and solving problems with your writing.

You can, and should, employ outlines at any time in the writing process.