9 – The Writing Process

Outlining

Rebecca Weaver; Lynne Bost; Michelle Kassorla; Karen McKinney-Holley; Kathryn Crowther; Lauren Curtright; Nancy Gilbert; Barbara Hall; Tracienne Ravita; Kirk Swenson; Kalani Pattison; James Francis, Jr.; Claire Carly-Miles; Nicole Hagstrom-Schmidt; and Matt McKinney

Typically, the next step in writing your document involves constructing an . Sometimes called a “blueprint” or “plan,” an outline helps writers organize their thoughts and categorize the main points they wish to make in an order that makes sense. In technical and professional writing, the key components of the outline may actually be given to you. You might know, for example, that a lab report in many disciplines is generally written in the format—that is, the main headings would be Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion. Proposals might be expected to have a Purpose Statement, Summary, Introduction, Plan of Action/Tasks, Schedule, Budget, Qualifications, and References. A cover letter may not have “headings” as such, but there is still a heading/salutation area, an introduction about you and your interest in the position or company, one or two body paragraphs connecting specific examples from information in the résumé to the company’s characteristics and desires, and a closing/conclusion with a signature.

Purpose and General Format of Outlines

You most likely determined the most appropriate genre or form for your document at some point during the prewriting process. The form may have been given to you from the beginning, or you may have figured it out as you refined your topic, purpose, and audience through various prewriting techniques.

It may seem as if you do not need to provide a more detailed outline if you already have an idea of your document’s main structure, if you are writing correspondence, or if your document will be relatively short. However, that isn’t necessarily true. The purpose of an outline is to help organize your document by checking to see how (or if) your ideas connect to each other, and whether you need to provide additional development. Outlines can help you organize the overall structure of any type of document, whether a one-page cover letter or a 20-page recommendation report.

Consider Figure 9.2,[1] which provides an outline for an email related to building/safety code enforcement. While an email is a short piece of correspondence, taking the time to make sure each important piece of information is included and clearly organized will save you time in unnecessary back-and-forth correspondence to clarify the situation.

Figure 9.2. Sample of a 2-level alphanumeric outline of an email.

Outline

Purpose: To convince the Code Enforcement Department to come inspect the back porch for safety.

  1. Greeting
  2. Information about the property
    1. The address/location
    2. The property management company and their contact information
  3. Information about the structural damage
    1. Description of the layout of the building and the back porch
    2. Description of the problems with the structure
  4. Information about the situation with the property managers and owners
    1. Things that I and my neighbors have tried in the past in order to get them to fix it
    2. Information about what maintenance of the property the managers have and haven’t done
  5. Information about my schedule and when I’m available to meet with the Code Enforcement officer to show them the specific problem spots
  6. Closing/Signature

The formatting of any outline is not arbitrary; the systems of formatting and number/letter designations create a visual hierarchy of the ideas, or points, being made in the document. Primary, major headings (or Level 1 headings) are often identified with capital Roman numerals (I, II, III, IV…). These headings are your major points or organizational patterns. In a report following the IMRaD format, the Level 1 headings could be

  1. Introduction
  2. Methods
  3. Results
  4. Discussion
  5. Conclusions

After Level 1 headings come subheadings (or Level 2 headings). Level 2 headings are more specific than Level 1 and often reflect specific points, claims, or examples that support the goal of the overall section. These headings are often organized by capital letters (A, B, C, and so on) and are indented one half-inch from the previous level. The ordering re-starts under each new Level 1 heading. After Level 2 headings, writers may opt for even greater specificity and subdivisions by incorporating Level 3 and Level 4 headings. Level 3 headings tend to use lower case Roman numerals (i, ii, iii, iv…) whereas Level 4 headings use lower case letters (a, b, c…). They are also indented one-half inch beyond their preceding heading. Figure 9.3 illustrates an outline that uses three levels of headings.[2] This example also demonstrates how you might use an outline to plan the organization of a document where the level 1 headings are provided or come from certain genre expectations.

Figure 9.3. Sample of 3-level alphanumeric outline of an internal research proposal.

Outline

Purpose: To propose researching the most effective way for Student Organization X (SOX) to gain publicity in hopes of gaining more members.

  1. Summary
  2. Introduction
    1. Information about SOX
    2. Information about current members of SOX
    3. Why having more members would benefit SOX and the surrounding communities
  3. Proposed Research Tasks
    1. Determine how current members discovered SOX.
      1. I will survey current members.
      2. My survey will be through Google Forms.
      3. I will distribute the survey at the next meeting.
    2. Discover what SOX has already tried in order to increase membership.
      1. I will interview SOX leadership.
      2. I will ask these types of questions.
    3. Investigate how successful organizations similar to SOX recruit members.
      1. I will determine who is in the leadership of 3 similar organizations.
      2. I will contact the leadership of these 3 organizations and set up an interview.
      3. I will ask these questions/types of questions in the interview.
    4. Investigate what types of publicity or advertising are particularly effective at universities.
      1. I will use library resources to find relevant secondary sources.
      2. I will survey the general student population of Texas A&M and determine how they discover organizations to join.
      3. I will distribute the surveys in class, at the library, and over various social media platforms.
    5. Determine the most effective method of publicity.
      1. Collect the information learned from the previous tasks.
      2. Determine criteria for judging feasibility and effectiveness of publicity methods.
      3. Create a decision matrix using the information and criteria.
    6. Investigate the most effective way to use the method of publicity from the previous step.
      1. Discover relevant secondary sources through library resources.
      2. Use/apply principles from marketing courses and experience with consuming advertisements and publicity.
  4. Schedule
  5. Budget for Research
  6. Qualifications
    1. My qualifications as a student member of SOX
    2. My qualifications due to past research experience
    3. The expected qualifications of the team I may work with to conduct this research
  7. References

Your outline should therefore include not only identified, planned Level 1 headings and Level 2 headings, but also paragraphs or points you plan to make within each section. Depending on your outline’s level of detail, you may also include the main evidence or support for each major point. Major points, in other words, should not be buried in subtopic levels. If an idea is conceptually large and needs development, it should be part of a higher-order heading.

A well-developed outline breaks down the parts of a document in a clear, hierarchical manner. Writing an outline before beginning to write a document helps you to organize ideas generated through brainstorming and/or research, thus making the document easier to write. Moreover, having an outline also helps to prevent you from “getting stuck” when you sit down to write the first draft. For writers who prefer to outline after doing freewriting or preliminary drafting, the outline offers a way to organize thoughts and clarify larger connections.

Creating an Outline

While a finalized outline looks crisp and well organized, the process of creating one involves repeated decision-making and constant revising. Outlines represent higher-order thinking, so it is normal if early drafts do not fully capture what you hope the final product will look like. An outline is meant to be a document which helps you make the points you wish to make clearly and thoroughly. To help you navigate the process of writing an outline, follow the steps below:

  1. Identify your topic. Put the topic in a single sentence or phrase using your own words. This sentence or phrase may eventually be revised into the purpose statement of a document if this is part of the expectations of the form.
  2. Determine what headings or overall organizational structures are expected within the genre or form you are using. Were you given the main headings/organization by assignment instructions? Do you have access to similar documents written by colleagues or supervisors that you can use to determine expectations and follow? What other sample documents can you find to help communicate the expectations for the organization of this document?
  3. Determine your main points. What are the main points you want to make to convince your audience? At what location/section of the document should each point be included? Refer back to the prewriting/brainstorming exercise of answering questions.
  4. List your main points/ideas in a logical order. Consider what information belongs within each major section or heading, and determine the most important organizational pattern to use to convey that information.
  5. Create sub-points for each major idea. You can convert some of the items in your list from the previous step into sub-points. Consider the level of importance for each item. Is it a sub-point by itself? Does it have sub-sub-points underneath? Are these “paragraph-level” sub-points within a section, or should they be subheadings?
    Typically, each time you have a new number or letter, there need to be at least two points (that is, if you have an A, you need a B; if you have a 1, you need a 2; etc.). Though this process may seem frustrating at first, it is useful because it forces you to think critically about each point.
  6. Evaluate. Review the organizational plan for your paper. Does each paragraph have a controlling idea/topic sentence? Is each point adequately supported? Look over what you have written. Does it make logical sense? Is each point suitably fleshed out? Are there areas that need more research? Is there anything unnecessary included?
This text was derived from Weaver, Rebecca, Lynne Bost, Michelle Kassorla, Karen McKinney-Holley, Kathryn Crowther, Lauren Curtright, Nancy Gilbert, Barbara Hall, Tracienne Ravita, and Kirk Swenson. Successful College Composition, 3rd Edition. (2016). English Open Textbooks. 8. https://oer.galileo.usg.edu/english-textbooks/8. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

 


  1. Kalani Pattison, “Sample of 2-level Alphanumeric Outline of an Email,” 2020. This image is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
  2. Kalani Pattison, “Sample of 3-level Alphanumeric Outline of an Internal Research Proposal,” 2020. This image is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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Howdy or Hello? Technical and Professional Communication by Rebecca Weaver; Lynne Bost; Michelle Kassorla; Karen McKinney-Holley; Kathryn Crowther; Lauren Curtright; Nancy Gilbert; Barbara Hall; Tracienne Ravita; Kirk Swenson; Kalani Pattison; James Francis, Jr.; Claire Carly-Miles; Nicole Hagstrom-Schmidt; and Matt McKinney is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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