If you’ve been reading this blog, you know how important it is to break down big goals into small tasks. I’ve shared examples here and here. Good planning relies on paying attention to detail. I think about planning not only in terms of organizing your calendar, but also in organizing your thoughts. One of the best ways to achieve the level of detail necessary for effective planning is through outlining. In this blog post, I’ll explain the benefits of outlining academic articles.
Outlining academic articles gives you greater coherence in your writing and in the planning of your writing. An outline is basically a map. Imagine driving somewhere for the first time. You plug the address into Google Maps and the directions are, “go east over the hill, then it’s a few blocks from there.” You probably wouldn’t reach your destination and you’d be pissed.
Yet, when it comes to our writing, we often try to wing it with a vague plan for what we want to say. For instance, we might start a literature review and jot down a few ideas. In contrast, outlining academic articles gives you the step-by-step directions you need to reach your destination. For that literature review, you’d identify the themes, how much space to devote to each theme, and what scholarship you intend to discuss under each theme. Setting out this type of roadmap makes it much easier to write a draft.
Outlining also helps you figure out what’s going on with your argument, framing, etc. Academic writing is complex. To make sense of that complexity, you need a strategy to organize your thoughts, theories, sources, and so forth. Imagine an outline not as a bunch of roman numerals indented on your word document, but rather as what you’d see in a coloring book – the outside of an image. Just like in that coloring book, an outline gives your manuscript its shape.
An outline also has psychological benefits. When you outline, you take complex arguments and break them down into their simplest points. It makes the writing process less overwhelming. Outlining also enables you to see the big picture of your article earlier on in the process, saving you the stress of realizing glaring errors so late in the process that you would experience a significant and stressful setback to correct them.
I used an outline when writing this post. I started simple – with a list of the three benefits of outlining (step-by-step directions, giving a shape to your argument, and simplifying a complex task). Then I decided what example to use when discussing each benefit and added each to the outline. As I worked on that part of the outline, I realized that my introduction wouldn’t make sense, and revised the outline. This saved me a lot of time, because I didn’t write an entire introduction only to then realize I couldn’t use it.
An outline is a tool for planning in addition to being a tool for thinking. In my planning process, I could have selected one of these benefits as a writing task. That may have looked like “write one paragraph explaining the psychological benefits of outlining” during a scheduled time on my calendar.
Many clients I work with in editing and as students in the Art of the Article eschew outlining. They argue that it’s too time consuming and that it’s hard to come up with the “right” ideas so early on in the process. They explain that they have to start writing to make sense of their ideas. You might have similar objections. I would counter that outlining is a form of writing, and that avoiding the hard work of coming up with ideas doesn’t make that work go away, it just prolongs it. In the Art of the Article, I teach an outline first system and in most cases, it saves writers time because their first draft is so much stronger than it would be without an outline. If you’d like to learn more about the Art of the Article, click here.