What is and Why use an Outline?
What is an outline?
A preliminary plan
An organizational/structural map
Brief, yet concise description
Why use an outline?
Organize your thoughts
Present your ideas logically
Develop relationships between ideas
Create smooth transitions
See key words/ideas clearly
Outlining is a step that almost all professors recommend-and many require-before you get to actually writing your paper. An outline is the most formal pre-writing technique and most closely mirrors the structure of your final paper, and this has its benefits and drawbacks. To create your outline, take the results of other pre-writing you've done and see if you can turn it into a hierarchical structure. This is easiest with clusters; if you've made a good cluster, all you'll need to do is decide what order your subtopics go in. However any ideas you have can be simply translated into an outline. First, identify three to five ideas that seem more important than the others, and see if you can fit your other ideas into those primary topics as subtopics. With this in mind, create a skeleton outline (with subtopics one tab to the right of their controlling topics) and start filling it out.
An outline can be as specific as you want it to be; most books, for example, have very general outlines in the form of tables of contents. The other end of the spectrum is computer programs, which express their entire meaning in a hierarchical outline format. Determining where your outline falls along this continuum is often the most challenging part of creating an outline. Get too specific, and you're practically writing each sentence of your paper into the outline. Too general and your paper ends up like a vinaigrette dressing: not very stable and liable to lose its structure very quickly. How specific you get is up to you, but for a typical Oxy paper an outline that describes the focus of each paragraph is probably specific enough.
This is the point of outlining in the first place! One of the nice things about outlining is it's easy to see if you've divided your paper correctly. Generally, each subtopic of your outline should take up the same amount of space on the page. If one section of your outline is visibly longer than another, chances are that will translate to a longer written segment, giving the paper an unbalanced feel for the reader. If you've done your outline and you can't tell whether you've got a good balance, try turning it into a cluster graph.
Outlining is a powerful tool, but even a good outline won't ensure a good paper. As you're actually writing the paper, realize that each subtopic in a layer is mobile within that layer. An outline presents your paper in one order, but that doesn't mean it's the right order. If you've finished a subsection and you find that another subsection follows more naturally than the one that's next in your outline, don't be afraid to switch the order! There's a dangerous temptation with outlines to let the outline control your paper; remember that you're in charge and the outline is simply a tool.
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