A coworker of mine from back in Minnesota, while in the middle of working full time and earning a Master’s degree, posted the following on her Facebook wall:
I just learned how to outline an article before I write it, and it is life-changing.
I was glad she posted this firstly because she sounded really happy, and it’s good when your friends sound really happy.
But secondly, she spoke to something that’s been on my mind whenever it comes to teaching or assistant teaching academic writing:
Do you outline first? Do you insist that your students outline first?
I’ve never seen an academic writing textbook say not to outline first.
But a lot of my students have said that it feels backwards to outline first. They say that the process of writing it out helps them think through it. When I ask them to hand in an outline, first draft, and final draft, I’ve watched them write the outline last.
It’s not just them: I don’t love outlining, either. I like how it feels to start writing and see where it takes me, though I’ll grant you that I don’t always have the luxury of time and the result is not always a piece with a sharp organizational structure.
My coworker used to do that too, but in a very busy and writing-intensive season of her life, changed her process and embraced pre-outlining.
Will all of us, like my friend in Minnesota, cross some personal threshold of practice or need for speed, and inevitably shift to the objectively superior outline?
Or is there something about writing, at least for certain personalities, that scaffolds the thought process in a way that the short-hand of outlining never will?
How do you handle “mandatory” outlining in academic writing classes? What kind of student feedback have you received?