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.24574037480_50eaec64b4

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?


Photo Credit:  A. Birkan ÇAGHAN on Flickr

You’re reading Outlining?, originally posted at LearningToTeachEnglish.com.



2 thoughts on “Outlining?

  1. Thank you for sharing this.

    In my own writing, I first did write-first/outline-later. Then I took a series of business writing course and have the opposite problem: once I’ve written and sharpened the outline I have a hard time adding all of the transitions and filler.

    When being taught outlining in academic (non-business) settings, I never received effective feedback on the content, just whether I had filled out the outline. So then I’d go into the essay with a poor thesis and unsupported topic sentences.

    In business writing, the outline was the outcome and the feedback was sharp. That’s what made me actually look at what I was outlining to see its warts and improve.

    To get better at outlining, I think one might try only outlining several topics and then compare the outlines and critique them for which would be the most effective to flush out.

  2. Ben – that’s a really good point: the purpose of the outline is for it to become an effective essay, and we need to give feedback that reflects that. I also like the idea of doing several and then evaluating which would make the strongest essay. It’s good practice and underscores the intended purpose. And if time/level make it impractical, you could hand out several sample outlines and have students evaluate those instead. Thanks for the input and ideas!

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