The Outline: Would You Build a House Without Blueprints?

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Louie LeRue spent much of five days researching and scratching out his Final Essay draft for his freshman course, United States Economics: An Introduction. He wanted this to be his opus for the course, as with the previous essays he received no higher than a C+ grade. If it took more work to improve a gradec, he would do it; if it meant more time devoted to creating the essay, he was up to it; and if it meant forgoing a few nights out with friends, that was fine: Louie wanted to show his professor that the information during the course was fully understood, that it could be presented in college-level writing, and that this professor’s efforts in the classroom were not taken lightly.  Before turning in the draft, Louie went to the school’s tutoring center, and, after an hour-long discussion with the tutor, came away somewhat disheartened but with a new approach to his writing.  It was pointed out – in so many areas of the essay – that Louie had no cohesiveness, no flow; it appeared as if research, sentences, and paragraphs were tossed into the essay as if a Jackson Pollock painting. Unfortunately, this is an all-too-common error folks make when writing: not taking the extra time to use an outline to clarify, prioritize, and smooth out the writing,  rather cut corners and just jot down what comes to mind. Yet those additional minutes an outline’s use requires can quickly transition a scattered piece of writing into one a reader can easily take in – and enjoy.

Louie’s lack of an outline use fits into one of the two primary reasons folks don’t like to write or find writing challenging: it takes time (the other reason – so many rules and exceptions to the rules!). Lives today are multitasked: pressures from family, school, work, and other involvements result in a constant lookout for ways to save time, to cut corners. When it comes to writing, it is crucial to do whatever it takes to satisfy the #1 rule of writing: one writes for the reader. When this is ignored, the consequences for the writing can be quite negative: a poor course grade, no invitation for a job interview or no promotion in the job, and other downsides. Certainly, this problem with writing resulting from no use of the outline can have another quite disastrous effect: the reader’s negative thoughts on the person who did the writing.

For Louie, using an outline was venturing into new writing territory. Although he had been told about and taught about the outline and its advantages in many English classes, including high school, it would take too much of his time, he figured. He had the thoughts, he had the research, he had a good thesis; this, he felt, was all that was needed to write a good essay. Now, however, he learned this approach was wrong; the tutor spent much time sharing the why and how of the outline, and it especially made sense because the tutor used Louie’s draft!

Louie was not going to let the tutor’s advice go unheeded, especially if it could result in better grades on his writing. He took copious notes as the tutor described why the outline’s use was important and how to best use it. Rather than simply look at his notes or use his memory from the tutoring session, Louie made his own organized outline of sorts – of the steps to a good outline. He shared it with a former classmate, Zinnia McGillicuddy, a Creative Writing major, to see if it made sense. Two tweaks later from Zinnia, Louie shared his outline approach with his professor.  So pleased was he with what Louie created that he shared it with the class.

This is what they read, “Louie’s Guide to An Important Writing Tool, the Outline:” 

  • Become familiar with the format of an outline.
  • Pick the target audience.
  • Come up with a specific subject, then create a thesis; this would be included in the Opening Paragraph (jot a note to remember the “hook” for the Opening Paragraph and to include a Title Page).
  • Sketch out the main points for the essay; create headings for the outline.
  • If research is necessary, do the research; decide which points each piece of research will support.
  • Decide the order of supporting points (each supporting point would equal one Body Paragraph).
  • Be certain there is a Concluding Paragraph (include a rewritten – but with same major points – thesis statement; remind the reader of the supporting points).
  • Using the outline structure, fill in with all paragraphs and (if necessary) research. 
  • Take a global view of the outline, i.e., revise as needed. (Are paragraphs in the right order? Is the thesis specific and no more than two sentences? If required, is research evenly distributed?; is there too much or not enough research? Are quotes and/or paraphrases included?)
  • Be sure the essay and the outline are in sync, i.e., does the essay follow the outline? Adjust when needed.

It took about an hour to create this guide, and Louie was quickly reminded why he did not use an outline: the extra time. But he also learned from the tutor how implementing an outline would have resulted in a stronger, more coherent Final Essay draft. The tutor gave Louie one final piece of advice, something Louie – and most writers—never consider: one’s writing will always be judged by others, and thus any extra effort put into one’s writing that results in a thumbs up from the reader is worth it. Louie’s Final Essay draft looked and sounded better, because he used an outline. His professor obviously felt the same way, rewarding Louie’s efforts with an A, the highest grade he had received on a college essay. Louie smiled, not only at the grade but also because he found a great resource to help with his writing – the outline.

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