Monday, January 25, 2010


Originally uploaded by TheTurducken
I was never a fan of outlining. It was something we were made to do in school, and I know I wasn't alone in going back and creating ex post facto outlines when we were required to turn them in.

This changed a little bit in graduate school. No one demanded to see outlines at this point, but I tended to start off a paper by opening up a document, inserting page numbers (tip from John Braxton: Do this first thing so you don't forget), and then writing the following headers: Introduction, Theoretical Framework, Literature Review, Data, Methods, Results, Discussion - or some variation thereof. Conceptually, it wasn't particularly useful; it simply reflected the required components of a research article. If I was feeling particularly frisky, I might divide the lit review into something like "Historical sources" and "Case studies."

However, in the last few months, I've discovered that I love outlining and it makes writing so much easier for me. The thing is, by the time you sit down to write a journal article, there is not a lot of mystery about what you'll say. You know what your results are, and the conventions around scholarly articles demand compliance with a formula. So it's not as if I'm stifling creativity. This isn't Finnegans Wake.

(The photo here, by the way, is of my outlining breakthrough. An paper needed serious revision, and I was going through and editing when I realized it needed more than that. The outline on the left was the result.)

I tend to outline fractally; I start off high-level, and iteratively fill in more detail. At some point, when the outline runs several pages, I just fill in paragraphs to match the outline. There's practically no sitting there thinking, hm, what goes next? Because I already know. My writing has become so much more efficient.

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