Every author knows the terrifying feeling of sitting down at the keyboard to draft a paper in the absence of an outline. Staring at a blank screen magnifies the terror and often paralyzes writers. With experience, authors learn that building an outline, before beginning production writing, is well worth the time and effort. But, for many, their draft outline falls far short of smoothing the way toward a polished first draft.
After decades of trying to help my students craft outlines that will guide their writing, I’ve discovered a few tips. The secret is to use bold topic sentences to externalize the outline’s narrative so that it functions as an evocative prompt for sections and paragraphs, rather than as a laundry list of bullet points.
I’ve noticed that many authors create an outline by identifying the content they want to cover in each section or paragraph. Some just use content labels and others list a few inferences or conclusions that they want to highlight in each section. I call this format the “ambitious outline” because it is simply a “wish list” of what authors hope will happen.
But they leave themselves with a lot of work to do because content labels don’t create a narrative momentum that draws authors into the flow of the work. Instead, as they move through these content labels, writers must try to remember the story they had in mind when they put the outline together. Such content label outlines reflect the aspirations of those who produce them, but they are not guidelines for how authors satisfy those aspirations.
I suggest that before “writing” a draft, you work on producing topic sentences for each of your key points. Don’t just list what you intend to get out of a subsection, such as “list important historical figures.” Instead, start with “three people have had substantial effects on the profession’ s development because they…” Then, in the subsections under that, write another sentence on each of the three. For example, “Putnam popularized the concept of social capital, which gave researchers studying disasters the tools they needed to highlight the importance of social relationships between neighbors.” Now, as an author, in going back through your outline when you arrive at the writing stage, you have a map for how your sentences will contribute to the overall narrative.
Similarly, instead of writing “define social capital,” in the outline, you could write “social capital plays important role of helping neighbors recognize how they can help others in times of disaster.” Now, you have an explicit clue as to what your authorial self needs to do, when you start the actual production writing process. Otherwise, you must constantly remind yourself why you put that content placeholder in that place in the outline.
Crafting topic sentences and follow-on sentences, rather than just content labels, economizes on your writing time. Instead of having to rethink what it was that you intended to write, you’ll have your intentions embedded in the topic sentences and they will pull you into the writing process, giving you the momentum you need. When completed, the bold topic-sentence driven outline will also help you decide whether this is the story you wanted to tell.
You might complain that you can’t follow my suggestion to write bold topic sentences because you haven’t figured out yet what you want to say. Precisely! You have begun too soon if this task stumps you. As I’ve written elsewhere in my blog posts, your research and note taking should have already generated dozens of interpretive notes which you’ve reviewed and sorted in the process of deciding on your narrative. Thus, difficulties in creating a topic-sentence-driven outline are another sign that you’ve ended your literature search and data analysis too soon. Return to the library or your online search engine and come back to the outline when you have learned enough to write your bold topic sentences.