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The Process of Writing: Outlining

Yet another form of brainstorming which suits some writers better is outlining. For one sort of writer who needs to build structure early on in a project, outlining can be an effective way to brainstorm; if you are this type of writer, the brainstorming and outlining stages are combined. For another sort of writer, however, the outlining stage must be postponed until after the initial brainstorming is done, or else that writer will feel too tied down to generate new thoughts--which is one source of what is called writer's block (the inability to progress with a writing project). Three common methods of outlining are informal outlines, formal outlines, and cluster outlines.

The Informal Outline

In an informal outline, you simply try to break your notes down roughly into sections which, even early on, clearly correspond to different parts of your document--for instance, sections which correspond to different supporting reasons. Just skipping some lines or starting a new paragraph is enough of a signal that you're beginning a new section. If your thoughts are clear enough so that you can label each section, so much the better.

The Formal Outline

A formal outline works much the same way, but is more meticulous. In general, formal outlines are more detailed than informal outlines, and formal outlines also use certain signals to show the relationship of one part to another part.

More specifically, a formal outline will usually signal its several most important parts by beginning the labels or titles of those parts with Roman numerals, and by starting those lines flush against the left margin, like this:

I. Introduction

II. Main Body

III. Conclusion

Then a formal outline will signal the sub-parts to those sections with capital letters and by indenting those lines, like this:

I. Introduction

A. Background Information

B. Thesis

C. Preview of Supporting Reasons

If those sub-parts themselves have parts, then their proper level is signaled with Arabic numerals and a further indention, like this:

I. Introduction

A. Background Information

B. Thesis

C. Preview of Supporting Reasons

1. First Reason

2. Second Reason

3. Third Reason

If yet another level of sub-parts needs to be shown, a formal outline will usually do this by using lower-case letters ("a, b, c" rather than "A, B, C"), and a further indention, but for this class, three levels will usually be enough. The relationship of informal and formal outlines is that sooner or later, you should apply a formal outline to any long document; this will save you much confusion because it helps you to better understand the purpose of each paragraph you write, and the relationships of each one to all the other paragraphs.

The Cluster Outline

The third type of outline mentioned is the cluster outline. Cluster outlines look a lot like the word balloons cartoon characters use. A cluster outline can be very rough like an informal outline, or conceivably can be as specific as a formal outline. In a common form of cluster outline, each separate idea is put inside a circle or box. Then the circles or boxes are connected to each other by lines. These lines show which ideas are related to which other ideas. The main difference between a cluster outline and a formal outline is that it is not linear; it doesn't necessarily run down a page from top to bottom and across from left to right. Instead, it can be pretty free-form. This appeals to some writers because it doesn't make their ideas seem so cut-and-dried, or so closed off, and yet still shows how their ideas relate to one another.

In an example of a cluster outline of the "preview" above, the three supporting reasons would each be in a separate circle, and lines would be drawn from each one to a single circle labeled "Preview of Supporting Reasons," or just "Preview." That circle in turn would have a line running to another circle labeled "Introduction."

A variation of this same cluster format uses circles within circles, instead of circles or boxes connected by lines. In this case, the largest circle would be labeled "Introduction," and it would contain a smaller circle labeled "Preview," along with two other circles for "Background Info" and "Thesis." The "Preview" circle, in turn, would contain several yet smaller circles, one for each supporting reason.

In general, your writing will almost always start out in some confusion, and even if it doesn't, it will usually get confused at some point! That's the nature of the beast. So don't overlook the importance of using some sort of outline to help yourself get through those stages of confusion.

To go to any stage of the writing process, just click on the selected stage below:

Overview ~ Brainstorming ~ Outlining ~ Drafting ~ Revising ~ Proofing

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