Anyone who has been following the summer writing group hosted by ADM and Notorious, and some who haven’t, know that I’m working on an article this summer, in between writing a conference paper, traveling, gardening, watching the Tour de France, working on a translation, and what seems like a zillion other things but probably is under 50 even if I listed every single thing, which I’m not going to do (fellowship application, shit, forgot about that one; maybe I should list every little thing).

And since there has in the past been some interest in outlining and developing an article, I thought I’d write about my process again. This time, I was lucky: the basic thesis is pretty simple, and the component sections of the article pretty obvious (well, obvious after a lot of free-writing on the topic), so I was spared a lot of the “re-arrange the pieces” stage. Instead, I free-wrote about each of the sub-topics, and then set up six or so pages (first on paper, then on the computer), each with these headings:

Main points
Topic sentences
Textual support
Critical support/arguments
Historical support
Other notes (this was a late addition, after I started wanting to remind myself of particularly brilliant bits of writing from the original conference paper or free-writing)

I started by filling in either “main points” or “textual support” (the bottom-up approach, still). Critical and historical quotes or sources mostly got moved in from another document containing notes on things I’d read for the conference paper or while I was thinking about how to expand the paper. Sometimes this showed that on a given topic, I needed more of one or the other. When I was clear on the main points and how they grew from the text and how they interact with the current state of critical thought, then I constructed a thesis statement and topic sentences.

Most of the outlines now run about 1 1/2 pages. They are not conventional IA1a(1)(a) sorts of outlines, but I think they will do the job of keeping me on track with the argument and the necessary critical and historical references as I write the full essay. I expect there will be moments, nonetheless, where the writing takes the bit between its teeth and runs off in an unexpected direction, and moments where I realize that This Big Point, though big, can be very simply stated and does not need a lot of development, whereas some quite ancillary point may have to be argued in detail. Both of those things always happen to me. But I can now see a map of the whole essay, and when I print these mini-outlines, I’m going to spend awhile thinking about how the thesis statements and topic sentences work together in the larger context before I start the stage of further expansion of outline/rough draft.

“Further expansion” and “rough draft” are more or less the same stage. Ideally, the outline expands to the point where it is a draft, with prose stringing together the points, the quotes, and so on. But sometimes it’s easier to “expand” than to “write,” and sometimes it’s easier to allow the writing to run than to hold it back and keep thinking about the shape of the outline.

For this week, I’m happy with my progress. (On this project: I have a collaborator waiting on a chunk of translation, and there’s that fellowship application I forgot about, and I need to communicate with some graduate students about their work, and I’m way behind with Project D, and I should do more planning of fall classes [I made a start on the flight home, at least], and I have to write up a reader’s report on an essay I was asked to review for possible publication, and . . . ack. Ack!) I’m happy with this one thing! All you other nagging tasks can piss off for five minutes!

One thought on “Outlining

  1. Congrats! I love when I can finally see the "map" of the essay as you put it. I love this idea, too. Thanks 🙂

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