Tuesday, January 25, 2011

To outline or not to outline

To create a good outline you need to have a pretty good idea of the flow and structure of the chapter/section/dissertation.

But ….. one gets a good idea of the flow and structure of the chapter/section/dissertation by making an outline. I think of this as ‘messy outlining’.

The proverbial chicken and egg dilemma.

The first option rarely seems to work for dissertations because part of the writing process is about surfacing your ideas and making discoveries (even though we live with the illusion … delusion? … that we have it all worked out when we become ABD).

The second option might work better for dissertators. We write at different levels of detail; sometimes we’re thinking about the larger argument that spans an entire chapter, and other times, we focus on the flow of ideas within a section. So here, ‘messy outlining’ works really well.

Let’s say you’re in the middle of writing and the section you’re working on just does not feel like it’s coherent; the direction of your ideas is not clear. This is where you can stop and make a mini outline:

1. What is my claim or the main idea I am asserting?

2. What are the different points I am making that leads to this claim?

3. In what order should I arrange these points?

I like to do this by printing out what I have written for that section and then numbering different chunks of writing to identify the discrete points or thoughts. Then I consider the best order for these numbered chunks. Sometimes I end up cutting out the pieces and moving them around! It really helps my tired mind to think more clearly to physically move the ideas about. I’ve tried doing this on screen, but scrolling up and down, and cutting and pasting is not as effective as laying out a few printed pages and scanning it visually … and actually cutting and re-arranging. I seem to see better (especially when I am tired and have been grappling with the ideas for a while) because all the ideas are laid out within my range of vision. Chad shared that he does something like this as well and finds it works.

Give it a go and see if it works for you. And share any variations you discover that work.

You're Not Alone - Here are some of the members of our group!