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Ye Olde Outline
By Kyle Cushman, Vermont College of Union Institute and University
"Twas the night before deadline and all through students' heads, visions of Roman numerals, letters, and numbers danced through their heads." There are many approaches to organizing a paper, including "ye olde outline." Unfortunately the vision of "ye olde outline" isn't always a pleasant one
It's high school. You're sitting at one of those cramped little desks with the chair attached by a metal bar. The teacher is standing over you, ruler in hand, as you struggle. "Is it a capital 'A' or a small 'a' next? When do I use a number? Is it II or 2 or (2)? What's the point of this anyway? Can't I just write my paper?!"
Somewhere along the way outlines got a bad rap. Some educators believe them to be too complicated, too rigid, too formal. They squish our myriad of free-spirited ideas into an uncompromising structure. With all of the options for organizing a paper that students are familiar with today, outlines are not always the first and most necessary choice. Visual students can work with webs or flow charts, verbal students can play with a freewrite or brainstorm a list of ideas. There are Venn diagrams, spider diagrams the possibilities are endless.
However, formal outlines should not go the way of quill and ink, manual or electric typewriters, or words like "thee" and "thou." Formal outlines can be extremely helpful when writing in-depth or lengthy papers. When one is organizing a large amount of information, ye olde outline can be indispensable. Formal outlines allow students to create an elaborate map to follow from one idea to the next. They establish clear relationships between main ideas, subordinate ideas, and supporting details and facts, allowing students to create a hierarchy of order. Outlines can help students to see what information fits with their map and which information should be left out. Outlines are often the organizational tool of choice for linear learners-students with a learning style that requires meticulous planning and clear, linear guidelines.
Learning support coaches can encourage students who are having difficulty seeing relationships between ideas, students who are organizing information from a variety of sources, or students whose papers are running in all directions to try a formal outline. Luckily, there are many written resources and web resources which clearly illustrate the steps to create a formal outline. One excellent resource is Diana Hacker's A Writer's Reference - 5th Edition where she gives a clear explanation of formal outline steps on pages 11-12.
Here are the most common outline levels:
Formal outlines use Roman numerals, capital letters, lower case letters, and numbers to indicate how ideas are subordinate to the ideas at the previous level. Indentation of each new level helps to visually cue subordination. It is best to include at least two parts for each level-if there is an A, have a B, if there is a 1, have a 2. Finally, it works best to choose either complete sentences or phrases to state ideas for each level (strive for consistency).
Outlines can work wonders for students who are feeling muddled and
at a loss for how to begin a paper. It's very effective to encourage
students to "play" with ideas before even getting to the outlining
stage. Any of the other planning/organizing approaches can be great
ways to play: webs, freewrites, Venn diagrams, etc. Students can then
take ideas from their web or freewrite and develop those ideas into
an outline. Or, if a student is still struggling with an outline, encourage
him or her to play some more until they feel "full" enough
of ideas to incorporate them into an outline. Once a student has developed
a solid outline, it is common for the first draft to practically write
itself because an outline is such an excellent guide. So, though there
are many organizational tools available today at the click of a mouse,
teaching students to keep ye olde outline in their toolbox is a worthy
Questions or comments? Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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