Writing with a Living Outline

August 6, 2019

“Strong outlines make strong essays.” The axiom might be attributed to any number of writing instructors or well-intentioned composition guidebooks. Indeed, student writers from a young age often learn that outlines are an essential part of the writing process. But what makes an outline strong? What should the outlining process look like, and what should it do for the writer? Perhaps because the outline is generally held to be a writer’s private document, or because the outlining process seems so obvious sometimes that the craft itself becomes easy to overlook, these questions often slip through the cracks, to the great detriment of writers and  their essays.

Less experienced writers often think of outlining as a “step” in the writing process, generally happening after some sort of brainstorming step and before the writing of the essay itself. But outlining so early suggests that a writer already knows what shape the essay will take. Casting the writing process as linear in this way also fails to take advantage of the greatest strength of writing as a form of discovery and expression: the writer’s ability to develop new points and to go back and make changes until completely satisfied. In her influential essay “Revision Strategies of Student Writers and Experienced Adult Writers”, Nancy Sommers advocates a recursive approach to the writing process for this very reason, demonstrating through research that experienced writers revise throughout the writing process, making deep and meaningful changes to strengthen their ideas and their overall execution, not just as a final step. A recursive approach undercuts the idea that there are certain sequential steps to the writing process, and it is important to acknowledge that outlining too must be thought of as something more than an organizational task that is left behind once the writing begins. The outline itself can and should be revised simultaneously alongside the essay, and updated and re-written throughout the writing process.

In fact, one of the most common assumptions concerning outlining that can limit a writer’s potential is that the outline is something like a contract: a document that, once created, cannot be betrayed, broken, or compromised. Because a linear view of the writing process would suggest that the outline comes first and the writing comes second, it is easy for writers with this mindset to become bound by the outline, and therefore reluctant to make any adjustments or changes that would challenge or improve upon the logic controlling the outline. This is problematic not only because it works against the power of writing as a form of expression that can be revised and crafted, but also because it stifles the natural evolution of thought that happens as we write, and works against the natural power of writing to activate and accelerate thought and the development of new ideas.

An outline therefore must be first and foremost thought of as a living document. This means that the outline, rather than remaining a fixed or definitive mold crafted before the essay writing even starts, should be allowed to breathe, to continually evolve in the same way as and generally in conjunction with the essay itself. An outline should not be just a reference point or a safety net, but an abbreviated version of the essay where the author can experiment with potential changes and new ideas, however major or minor, with an eye towards sketching in shorthand how these changes might impact the argument and flow of the essay as a whole. 

As an abbreviated form of the essay, the outline allows the writer to read backwards, forwards, and in non-linear ways. The writer can then review and modify relationships between argument and topic sentences, topic sentences and evidence: working with meaning in multiple dimensions. In moving between argument and topic sentences, the writer can bring the main points into view so an umbrella thesis can be developed.

What then, should an outline actually look like? 

As a living document, there’s no definitive rule for what an outline should look like, and a writer should feel comfortable creating the document that works best in the context. There are, however, some guidelines that may be useful to keep in mind:

Be concise, and emphasize the main points:In many respects, the outline lives as a structural skeleton, allowing the writer to review the entirety of the essay as more or less a single thought. To be able to experiment with changes as you move forward with your writing, it is beneficial to capture the main idea of the essay itself, along with the main points of the paragraphs in a simplified and clear manner. Keep your outline handy as you write, and test any new ideas against it first, to see how the idea might impact the writing as a whole, and what other changes (if any) incorporating the new idea might require within the rest of the structure. If you like keeping a more detailed outline, there is no harm in doing so at all! But there is also no harm in drafting a quick skeleton outline as well, to get a better sense of the body of writing as a whole.

Leave plenty of white space to start, and then fill in: The kind of experimentation described above often requires moving things around, writing down new ideas, adding notes or comments, or crossing things out. Make sure that you write out all of your points from start to finish, so you can see the whole essay on a page or two, leaving lots of room between points. Since you are only writing the outline for yourself, you can use shorthand and abbreviations to quickly sketch a larger idea. Then, you can go in and start breaking down each point into the different things you want to say about them, with an eye towards creating the groundwork for logically developed paragraphs. Remember that it is easier to add, take away, or move around flesh and dimension on a skeleton than it is on the essay itself, because when we look at full or nearly full paragraphs it is easy to get lost or caught in the detail. Leaving plenty of white space between ideas and in the margins of the outline creates the room and freedom to do these things comfortably.

Don’t be afraid to rewrite:One thing that makes an outline different than an actually living being is that you can kill it off without any fear of repercussion, and with no strings attached! This is why, an outline or provisional outline should be able to be quickly drafted at any point in the writing process. Sometimes it will work, and sometimes it won’t. Remember that revision sometimes means starting fresh with a better version that advances from your previous ideas, and that your outline is your low-stakes place to try things out. Much like with essay writing itself, you will likely find that the more you revise your outline the stronger and closer to your desired outcome each draft will be.

Works Cited

Sommers, Nancy. “Revision Strategies of Student Writers and Experienced Writers.” College Composition and Communication vol. 31, no. 4, 1980, pp. 378-388. Print.