HOW DO I OUTLINE MY PAPER?

  5.1 Why Do I Need an Outline?
  5.2 What are the Basic Ideas of Outlining?
  5.3 What are some of the standard principles of organization that I might use to structure my essay?
  5.4 How might these principles be used to suit my purposes?
  5.5 What are some of the finer technical points of standard outline form?
  5.6 What should I be aiming for in the preliminary outline?
  5.7 Mechanically, what is the proper form of an outline, which allows it to fulfill its purpose?
  5.71 What is the relationship between the form of an outline and its function?
  5.72 What are the basics of standard outline form?
  5.8 How should my preliminary outline develop as I continue my reading and note taking?

5.1 Why Do I Need an Outline?

Just as a builder doesn't start-construction without a clear plan, you should also have an intellectual "blueprint" before writing your Historia essay. Every structure, whether physical or intellectual, must have some underlying form or organization in order for it to stand. It is unrealistic to think that you can make up your plan as you are writing your paper; the result would most likely be a disjointed hodgepodge. And no matter how much effort you put into revision, the seams and cracks could never be totally smoothed away.

You can think of your outline as a kind of "virtual organization device" for your essay. By making and tinkering with your outline you can mentally rehearse and try out different routes or thought sequences your paper could take. Does one route lead to smooth interchanges (transitions), while others leave you hanging in a "can't get there from here" impasse? Do some routes lead to "dead ends" or even train wrecks? You can find out where the pitfalls lie by experimenting with your outline—without risking serious damage to your actual essay.

5.2 What are the Basic Ideas of Outlining?

If someone presented you with a stack of books and told you to "organize" them, there are may different approaches you could take. You could organize them according to physical characteristics (size, color); you could organize them by author or by topic. Within each of these schemes, different sequences could be adopted.

Your research will present you with a stack of facts and ideas. The main goal of outlining (or organizing) is establishing a basic, overall principle of organization or scheme to structure your essay. This scheme or principle of organization should form an appropriate fit with your particular topic.

5.3 What are some of the standard principles of organization that I might use to structure my essay?

a. Chronological:

A good way to understand anything is historically, how it developed over time. This principle of organization will probably play some role in your Historia essay. A major problem with this principle is that it often leads to too much exposition and pure narration, while neglecting analysis. You will probably want to combine this principle with others.

b. Topical/Thematic:

In this form of organization, the different sections of your paper reflect various subtopics that are related to your question. Each topical division treats material that is closely related by thematic content (what it is about). You must also establish some natural, logical principle to govern the order of your sections. Possibilities include: from the general to the specific (or vice versa); from the least to most significant (or vice versa).

c. Argumentative:

This form takes its structure from an issue, and the various arguments supporting different opinions on the issue, including your own. This form of organization embodies the whole idea of the Historia project; therefore, at some point, your essay will need to adopt some aspects of this form.

5.4 How might these principles be used to suit my purposes?

In and of themselves, the various principles of organization or neither good nor bad; they are just more or less appropriate for presenting the substance of your essay. Your principle of organization and the nature of your essay must be compatible. The essence of this fit is comprehensiveness and coherence: Does your outline embrace everything you want to write about? Does your outline provide a logical order that flows naturally and "makes sense"? Moreover, these (and other) basic principles of organization are not mutually exclusive; they can and should be mixed, matched, and blended as they serve your purposes. Different principles can be used sequentially in your essay, or they can actually be combined. Since your paper is historical, it will probably have some chronology in it. Since it is a Historia paper, it will have to have some argumentative form in it. Here are some classic combinations:

Chronological + Argumentative:

The basic structure of your essay is chronological; within this structure you present and argue your thesis.

Topical + Argumentative:

Your essay unfolds as a series of sub-themes that are sequenced logically; within these themes you present arguments in support of your general thesis. In general, the topical/thematic and argumentative forms are challenging because they require a sophisticated grasp of your material.

Chronological + Topical + Argumentative:

The broad outlines of your paper are chronological; within these broad chronological divisions, you establish themes; within these themes you identify issues and present arguments for your thesis.

5.5 What are some of the finer technical points of standard outline form?

a. Begin with a Topic Outline:

In a topic outline, the headings are relatively brief phrases (not complete sentences) that describe what that section is about. In a sentence outline, the headings are complete sentences. You should begin with a topic outline. Just before you begin writing your rough draft, you may find it helpful to expand your topic outline into a sentence outline. These sentences will then become the skeleton of topic sentences around which your paper will grow.

b. Headings at Corresponding Levels of the Outline Should be of Equal Logical Weight and Should be Expressed in Parallel Phrases:

Headings at the same logical level of the outline (level of major subtopic, level of minor subtopic, etc.) should have roughly the same logical weight (similar scope and significance) and they should be expressed in phrases that parallel each other in grammatical form.

c. A Topic Cannot be Subdivided into Only One Part:

In other words, there can be no A without a II, no A within a section without a B, no 1 within a section without a 2, etc. At first, this rule may seem rather artificial and arbitrary; but if you think about it, the prohibition has the force of logic behind it. Whenever you are tempted to violate this rule, as yourself the rather Zen question: Can you cut a loaf of bread into one piece?

d. Testing the Outline:

One good way of testing the logic and flow of your outline is to read it through the lens of the various logical subdivisions. So, first read through all the Roman numeral headings. Do you get a sense of strong logical sequence? What basic organizational principle(s) do you detect? Then, under each Roman numeral, read just the capital letter headings first. Does the sequence flow together? Use this method of reading to test the coherence of your outline down to the smallest topical subdivisions.

You should be constantly subjecting your outline to critical scrutiny, testing it for two main characteristics: comprehensiveness (does my outline include all the things A want to write about?); and coherence (does my outline organize these topics in the most logical order?).

5.6 What should I be aiming for in the preliminary outline?

As early as your general preliminary reading, you should begin thinking about the major aspects of your topic you want to focus on and the logic that will govern the order in which you will treat them. In the early stages, preliminary outlining and topic definition are very closely related, as you carve out your particular topic from the block of a larger general subject.

Purely Argumentative:

This pure form (not really a combination) relies on nothing other than the issue and the arguments on either side—and especially your own—to give it structure. To mount and sustain a focused, unified argument, in which all the material serves the purpose of argument is really the intellectual Everest of the Historia program. Two possible approaches are: two clear "pro/con"-type sections, or simply a presentation of your own arguments (which would include rebuttals of possible counter-arguments).

5.7 Mechanically, what is the proper form of an outline, which allows it to fulfill its purpose?

5.71 What is the relationship between the form of an outline and its function?

Perhaps you have struggled to fit your ideas into the standard outline format; but if you keep its purpose in mind, the form will make sense. Standard outline form is just a shorthand way of showing the logical relationships between ideas on a two-dimensional page. It shows the main subdivisions of your topic, and the order in which they will be treated. Under the main subdivisions, it shows further divisions. The subdivisions are aspects of the more general division that appears above them. Outlining is all about classifying ideas (putting related ideas together) and putting them in an order that makes logical sense.

5.72 What are the basics of standard outline form?

Standard outline form uses a sequence of Roman numerals, capital letters, arabic numerals, and lower case letters to show the logical relationships between the different sections of your paper—specifically, between general topics and topics that represent aspects or facets of those topics. The basic sequence is as follows:

  I. MAJOR SUBTOPIC 
 

A. Minor Subtopic

 

1. Major Detail

 

(a) Minor Detail 

 

(b) Minor Detail

 

2. Major Detail

 

B. Minor Subtopic

  II. MAJOR SUBTOPIC

Your preliminary outline should be in standard outline form on one side of a page. It should show the major subdivisions of your topic that you will treat (about three to five Roman numeral headings); it should also show some supporting details, but not many, because at this stage you simply have not done enough reading to fill in the details (perhaps A,B, or C, but not much more than that). Overall, the outline should embody some general principle of organization that will support your paper.

5.8 How should my preliminary outline develop as I continue my reading and note taking?

As you continue to read and take more notes, your notes and your outline influence each other, and your outline will be continually filled in, shaped, reshaped, and refined. As you learn more about your topic, you will be able to fill in more detail in your outline. As you understand more about your question, you will see how various parts of your paper can best be organized. Sometimes, as you are reading or thinking, the proper organization of a section will suddenly fall into place in your mind. Jot down a little scratch outline on the spot—and later incorporate it into your full outline. In a sense, your whole paper is like a series of outlines within Outlines. From the broad logical principles governing the overall structure of the paper to the sequence of ideas within a paragraph, your paper should be like a series of logical gears that smoothly mesh.

By a process of almost sculptural evolution, your preliminary outline will be transformed into your final outline.

 


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