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How to Quickly and Easily Outline Your Writing

In my previous post, I discussed how to craft a thesis statement. If you have yours to hand, get it out—you’ll need it for your outline. If you haven’t written one yet, reread the previous post and write one.

Once you have a thesis, you’re ready to outline. Before I continue, I should confess that I’ve never been the kind of writer who uses detailed outlines. At school when the outline was part of the assessment, I usually wrote my paper first and then reverse engineered the outline.

Since training as a writing teacher, I’ve come to appreciate the utility of a rough outline, but still don’t create highly detailed outlines. If you’re interested in creating a more detailed outline than what I’ll walk you through in this post, please do. Many people find them useful, if you’re one of them, enjoy. In the conclusion, I explain how to use this method to create a more detailed outline.

Pre-Outline Freewriting

In my post on freewriting, I discussed how to use freewriting to get going in your writing. It’s just as useful for your outline. So, set a timer for 10 minutes and write (without stopping) about your thesis statement. Don’t judge what you write, just write whatever comes to mind when you think about your thesis. You’ll likely write some combination of phrases, rough sentences, and questions.

When the timer goes off, reread what you’ve written and underline or highlight anything that stands out as particularly useful. Keep these things in mind as you continue to the next step.

The Outline

Write your thesis at the top of the page. Below it, you’ll write questions you need to answer in order to prove your thesis.

Let’s return to the sample thesis from the previous post: People who have pet cats tend to have lower blood pressure than those who have dogs.

  1. How have scientists looked at the impact of spending time with animals on blood pressure in humans?
  2. What is the evidence that spending time with animals is beneficial in terms of lowering blood pressure?
  3. What evidence is there that dogs and cats have different impacts on blood pressure?
  4. Have the studies controlled for people who are allergic to cats? Who are allergic to dogs? Who are allergic to both cats and dogs?
  5.  How can living with a cat be better for one’s blood pressure than living with a dog, when it has been shown repeatedly that having a dog increases one’s physical activity?

The list of questions could go on, but you get the idea.

The next step is to take each question in turn and decide whether it has a place in your piece. For example, in response to question one, you could find an article (or several articles) that discuss scientific studies of the impact of spending time with animals on blood pressure. You’d likely find that some of these looked at patient records and asked the patients to fill in a questionnaire. Thus, they’d be based on doctor recorded blood pressure readings and patients’ self-reporting about the time they spend with animals.

You would likely conclude that question 1, or rather its answer, does have a place in your piece. It is vital to your thesis that you have evidence that animals affect blood pressure. If you’re writing a longer piece, you’d likely want to consider the inherent problems in studies that rely on self-reported information – to what extent can you rely on what the patients reported about themselves? Also, if the study uses medical records collected by several physicians, can you trust that the data are consistent? Is one blood pressure machine as accurate as another? Is one physician as accurate in recording patient data as the next?

After you think this through and the additional potential questions that you need to consider, it’s time to reflect on the place of this question in your larger piece. If you’re writing a blog post or an article, this might be the only point you need, but you’d then need to revise your thesis to reflect your new focus. If you’re writing a book, the exercise of thinking through question 1 as I’ve done here has shown that question one is substantial enough to warrant having its own chapter.

You would then repeat this exercise with the remaining questions. If you find a question that just doesn’t interest you, if it’s not vital to proving your thesis, cross it out. If it is vital to your thesis, consider either tweaking your thesis so it’s not, or keeping the question you’re not wild about.

Once you’ve finished working through your questions, write a one sentence answer to each question that you are keeping on a separate sheet of paper. Then think about what order they should go in; the strength of your argument, and therefore of your piece of writing, relies on the logic of your organisation. For example, if you’re writing a book, there should be a clear, obvious reason why chapter three must come after chapter two and before chapter four.

One way to test your order, is to write each statement on a separate strip of paper, mix them up (or type them out and then alphabetise them), and ask a friend to put them in order. If your friend comes up with an order that is different to yours, discuss how you each reached the order you did. Then, decide if you want to change your order. If you don’t change it, but feel your friend has some valid points, make sure you keep those in mind as you write – you’ll need to make it clear to your reader why you’re discussing things in the order you do.

Conclusion

If you like more detailed outlines, repeat this process with the answers to the questions you keep – those answers are the thesis statements for your individual chapters. Your answers to your chapter thesis statements will be topic sentences for your paragraphs or, for more complex issues, your section headings (the topic for a group of paragraphs). We’ll talk about paragraphing and topic sentences next month.

In the Facebook group, let us know how this outlining technique worked for you. If you have used a different technique, share that with us too!

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