Teaching the Art of Outlining in Composition

Teaching the Art of Outlining in Composition

Outlining is an often a step in writing that students feel they can skip.

After all, they have their notes and their research; why not just jump without further delay into the essay introduction and first draft? On the contrary, however, outlining is a critical step in composition that not only puts order to a jumble of ideas but also advances understanding of the individual work and its written genre itself.

Discover Important Reasons to Teach Outlining

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    Putting Order to the Chaos

    Starting an essay or story can be overwhelming for the novice, or not so novice, writer. At the beginning stage, students may have bits of description, dialogue, facts and statistics, supporting details and positions, as well as various note cards and relevant research. How on earth can this mass of information ever be put into coherent form? Just writing out a standard outline of Introduction, Body Paragraph 1, 2, 3, and Conclusion can help students begin to order their ideas, to visualize where they might plug in their beginning notes.

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    Teaches the Form

    In this very act of ordering their ideas, students begin to advance their knowledge of the genre, of how to structure a story or essay. In writing the outline, students are able to strengthen their understanding of typical form: the need for an introduction of broad comments on the topic, then a position and support of increasing specificity in the body, and a conclusion that summarizes, etc. In creating the outline, students will notice if any of these pieces are missing or underdeveloped. Students  learn or are reminded by outlining how to group ideas: where ideas go together by topic, or by chronology, for example.

  3. 3

    Highlights Areas for Further Development

    As students further outline and take notes and the form begins to emerge, they begin to see places they need to fill in the gaps, to develop more: where they need more support, for example, or where to develop the conclusion. Just by looking at the outline, students can see at the imbalance or absence of the typical parts, and gain awareness of not only the form as a whole but areas they need to extend this specific writing.

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    Creates Awareness of the Topic

    Also in developing an outline, students become aware not only of their gaps in the organization and development of the essay, but also of gaps in their knowledge and need for further research. For example, in outlining my essay on the student debt crisis in the United States, I became aware that I needed to pin down exact figures on the total overall amount owed on student loans in the U.S. as well as individually, on average. I also saw the need to be able to write about exactly how these loans are typically made (e.g., with or without a cosigner, terms of repayment, etc.) In outlining, in other words, I became aware of my own need for information and further research.

Pay Attention to the Method of Teaching Outlining

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    Emphasize Flexibility in Early Stages; There Is No One “Right” Way

    Sometimes students get so hung up on the form of the outline itself they forget that its real purpose is a stage in the development of the essay, to organize the essay. It is therefore important for the instructor to emphasize it matters not a bit whether the students use Roman numerals, or lowercase or uppercase letters, etc.--or if they use numbers and letters at all, as long as the outline can be used to demonstrate the structure and direction of the final product. Then students can focus on getting their ideas for the essay on paper in an organized fashion rather than getting hung up on Roman or Arabic numbers.

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    Review the Basic Parts of the Genre. Discuss Which Ideas Should Be Plugged in Where

    Teaching the outline is actually a good way to teach or review the different elements of an essay or story. In nonfiction writing, for example, students, while generally aware that an essay requires an introduction, body, and conclusion, might be somewhat hazy on how to structure the body: that ideas fit together by chronological order, for example, or by cause and effect, or from the general to specific. Often also students learn how to structure an introduction, introducing the topic and its related issues, its historic perspective and background, perhaps quoting experts on the topic, etc.

  3. 3

    Teach Different Kinds of Outlines

    While emphasizing the point of “no one right way” to outline or even to develop a formal outline at all, the instructor can still teach several different ways to outline a piece of writing that students may choose to use, from the more formal Roman numerals and capital letters combined with regular numbers and small letters for a variety of points and supporting points, etc., to the more relaxed “beginning,” “middle” and “end.” Learning these different forms of outlines helps the student find the outline which works best for her, which is the important point, as these outlines are mostly “writer-based,” for the writer only, not an audience of readers.

  4. 4

    Show Models

    Recently I posted an outline of a short story in progress for a writing class, complete with the rough story outline, notes, questions, and bits of dialogue, filled into roughly their correct places, to show students what an outline/early draft might look like: somewhat disorderly, but also a clear guide to where I’m going with the story from beginning to end, showing where missing scenes, plot points, dialogue, etc., need to be plugged in.

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    Reverse the Process

    Have the students outline one or more of the essays in their texts or their peers’ essays. This helps develop a sense of the form, how an essay should be structured, as well as teaches the process of outlining.

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    Peer Review

    Have students read each other’s outlines and offer suggestions on what needs to be added or deleted before further drafting.

Far from being a predictable, rote, and largely useless part of the writing process, developing the outline can actually help students structure and develop their beginning ideas and research while advancing their understanding of the form and topic.

What methods do you suggest to teach outlining?

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