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4.1: Formal Outlines are Always Useful

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    Author: Kristin Milligan, Learning Center, East Central College

    In many classrooms around the country, students are handed assignment sheets that nicely detail what is expected of them as writers. Regardless of the genre, one (outdated) mainstay is the mandate for formal outlines. It’s good for writers to collect their thoughts before jumping into the physical process of writing, and most people would agree with this concept, but unfortunately, not everyone thinks or writes the same way. As a result, formal outlines required at the beginning of the writing process may hinder creativity and progress. Even more likely, students write the mandated outline after the piece has been revised and edited, as a means of meeting the assignment requirements. Requiring students to create an outline as the first step of the writing process teaches them that writing is a linear movement, when in reality, it’s actually recursive.

    There’s an age-old argument among those in the composition field. Should teachers and writers be focused on the product or the process of writing? Writing can be understood in a variety of ways, but one consistent factor is the idea of planning before actually writing the intended piece. For quite a while now, this idea has translated to the mandatory inclusion of outlines as a means of helping students organize and develop their thoughts before writing a draft. In general terms, the use of outlines as a pre-writing strategy is thought to afford writers the ability to more cohesively structure their written work. While organization and form are important aspects to the writing process, just because someone has organized ideas in a prefabricated and hierarchical form does not mean the actual writing is going to reflect this linear pre-writing strategy. For instance, one study concerning the behavior of good writers found that only one of the writers studied used anything close to what one could call an outline, but there were 14 other good writers in the study, too. Does that mean that the one student who used an outline is the best writer? How can teachers qualify writers’ abilities and strengths, especially based on a linear document that vaguely represents a recursive process? This disconnect highlights a major gap in the understanding of how good writers compose texts.

    Howard Gardner is well known for developing the idea of multiple intelligences (or the different ways that people learn, such as kinesthetically, visually, aurally, etc.). Through an exploration of multiple intelligences, it has been found that mathematically minded people are the ones who do their best work using outlines. One out of six intelligences prefers outlines, and yet in some classrooms, outlines are still a required part of writing assignments. Essentially, requiring students to create a formal outline for their written work excludes other valuable organizational strategies, such as mind mapping, picture drawing, and manipulating physical representations of ideas, such as rearranging Post-It notes on a whiteboard. Instead of only choosing a familiar and mandated organizational form, students should instead be allowed to use strategies that work best with their own intelligences to foster their growth.

    Another reason mandatory outlines should be given their proper burial is that outlines seem to only serve students in a particular manner: organization. Students’ final drafts are more organized when they use electronic outlining, but it doesn’t help them in strengthening a paper’s argument. In other words, outlines help students organize ideas, but don’t help students develop those ideas. Furthermore, a study on how students use prior knowledge to develop new skills toward writing established that outlines alone don’t help with student understanding. Ultimately, outlines make students focus on writing as a product instead of a process, even though they are meant to do the latter.

    Even if students weren’t required to create formal outlines, an organizational process would most likely be used in some manner, based on how people learn through observation of others’ writing processes. Research highlights how students naturally use outlines as they fit into particular assignments. Not only do students have the ability to apply the concept of outlining when needed, they also marry this strategy with others that benefit them in the writing process. Even so, research shows that the use of outlines has

    no correlation with the success of student papers. So, it can be assumed that students have the capability of using an outline (in whatever form it may take) as it serves their writing purposes, but students should not be forced to use a pre-writing strategy that is inorganic to their writing process, such as a formal outline with Roman numerals, a and b subdivisions, and the like. When students only need to plug in information into an already established structure, they lose multiple opportunities to engage in critical thinking and development of their ideas.

    In most cases, required outlines become a contrived formality, not a tool to help student writers succeed. Personal experience reminds us that students learn how to create outlines by being told what to do. (I can still hear my junior-year high school English teacher repeating to us that if our outlines “have an A they must have a B. If they have a 1 they must have a 2,” as if this alone constituted pre-writing.) A more fruitful approach is to encourage students in their writing by allowing them to explore multiple writing strategies at every stage of the process. In doing so, there’s the possibility that students’ beliefs about their writing efficacy will increase because they will be focusing on what helps them develop their skills in writing and not their skills in following directions.

    But not all uses of outlines are pernicious. One way that outlines can serve a vital function is to use them in the reverse. A small amount of literature has been shared about how writing a draft, then an outline of that draft, gives the writer the chance to see where revisions are needed. It’s important to note that some students just don’t know what they’re going to write about until they’ve started writing. Using outlines to organize thoughts that don’t exist yet has the capability of stifling students’ thinking processes, but when students decide to adapt outlines to benefit their personal writing method, it reinforces the fact that writing is a recursive and non-linear process. Teachers should be teaching outlines as a way to highlight the progress that students have made, instead of as a way to dictate where students are supposed to end up before they’ve even started.

    Reverse outlines not only help students pinpoint whether Paragraph 2 should become Paragraph 4, but they also emphasize many other aspects of writing as well. As Rachel Cayley points out, reverse outlining helps students pinpoint general structural problems and begin the process of detailed revisions. Additionally, depending on what is included in the reverse outline, students may end up noticing errors in topic sentences, flow of ideas, transitions, or the development of their argument. Reverse outlining helps to delineate the need to circle back, review, and revise, while encouraging students to realize that hierarchical structure and organization are important factors in creating a well-developed text.

    Writing is a messy practice, and it’s important to be gentle with one another and ourselves, especially when we decide which tools we want to use to make sense of our mess. It’s vital to realize and remember that outlines are a tool at our disposal when we write; they aren’t the only mode of organization, nor are they necessarily the best mode for our particular writing process.

    Further Reading

    To learn more about writing processes, see Linda Flower and John R. Hayes’s classic article, “The Cognitive Process Theory of Writing,” along with Anne Becker’s “A Review of Writing Model Research Based on Cognitive Processes,” Charles K. Stallard’s “An Analysis of the Writing Behavior of Good Student Writers,” and Veerle M. Baaijen, David Galbraith, and Kees de Glopper’s “Effects of Writing Beliefs and Planning on Writing Performance.”

    For further reading about outlines and reverse outlines, along with practical tips and examples, see “Types of Outlines and Samples” on the Purdue OWL (Online Writing Lab), Aaron Hamburger’s “Outlining in Reverse,” Kurtis Clements’s podcast “Revision Strategy—Post-Draft Outlining,” and the Kansas State University Writing Center’s handout “Reverse Outlining,” all available online. See also Milou J.R. de Smet, et. al.’s “Electronic Outlining as a Writing Strategy: Effects on Students’ Writing Products, Mental Effort and Writing Process,” and Barbara E. Walvoord, et. al.’s, “Functions of Outlining Among College Students in Four Disciplines.”


    outlines, post draft outlining, reverse outlining, writing as a process, writing process

    Author Bio

    Kristin Milligan is currently the associate director of the Learning Center at East Central College. In her more than six years of experience as a writing center tutor, Kristin has seen all kinds of outlines, messy and neat, informal and formal, and she has observed the effects of writing process choices on student texts.

    Kristin holds a Master’s degree from Texas State University in San Marcos, TX, and a teaching degree from Webster University in St. Louis, MO. She embraces multiple modes of brainstorming and organization as a way to reach diverse writers.