The Power of Outlining When Writing College Papers
Outlining can be a great tool in helping college writers. Your outline is an organizational framework, the skeleton of the paper you're writing.
by Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D., and Katharine Hansen, Ph.D.
You've known about outlining at least since middle school and probably elementary school. Indeed the very fact that you were taught to outline from an early age may predispose you to resisting the technique when it comes to your college papers. Outlining can be a faithful old friend to college writers, however, and one that will serve you especially well when you write longer papers.
The outline is an organizational framework, the skeleton of your paper -- to which you will add the flesh. The outline can help you fight the college-writing flaw that college instructors cite as their No. 1 pet peeve: poor organization. A good outline serves as a road map that enables you to visualize where your paper is headed. If a point seems out of place in an outline, chances are it's going to be even more so in your paper, and your instructor will notice immediately.
Since you undoubtedly already know a lot about outlining, we won't spend a great deal of time here discussing the how-to's of the technique. You should know, however, that there's more than one way to outline, and you can adapt the one that works best for you. You may even want to change formats from paper to paper or start out with a rough outline and work your way up to the more thorough sentence outline.
The basic types of outlines include:
- the rough or working outline
- the topic outline
- the sentence outline
Rough or Working Outline
The rough or working outline is an informal blueprint that may not even be in traditional outline form, such as in the following example:
Getting a Job After Graduation
-Answering job ads
-Practice interview questions
-Dressing for success
The topic outline follows traditional outline form but uses topics and subtopics, expressed as simple words or phrases, for each entry. Note this example:
God-like Authority in Elsie Dinsmore and its Uses in Gendered Social and Religious Discourse
I. Horace Dinsmore as God-like Authority
- The evolving Horace as metaphor for "feminization" of god-like authority
- Horace as promulgator post-Calvinist theology of Bushnellian Christian Nurture, and hence, "secular authority non pareil," between which and heavenly authority, Elsie must mediate
1. health and fitness
2. personal finances
II. Use of God-like Authority in both Horace and Elsie for chastening/incest/patrimatrimony
III. Elsie Dinsmore as God-like Authority
- Elsie as Evangelist--promulgator of Sunday-School didacticism
1. moral superiority
2. access to power as a result
- Promulgator of Calvinist faith vs. works theology
- Christ-like figure who converts through resurrection
IV. Conclusion: Who has more power?
The sentence outline, obviously, uses complete sentences for each entry. The sentence outline is the most formal of organizational techniques and the one that will probably bear the closest relationship to your final paper.
The sentence outline helps the organizational process by forcing you to think through the structure of your paper. While the topic outline structures the general concepts you will write about, the sentence outline organizes what you will say about each concept or topic. Here's an example:
Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?
I. Feminists might answer the question in one of at least two ways:
- Reclaim examples of "great" woman artists
- Assert that greatness is different for women than it is for men
II. In fact (according to Nochlin), there have been no great women artists: Why?
- Education and other institutions are at fault
1. It is not in the best interests of those who control institutions (men) to grant complete equality to women.
2. Women are often weakened by the internalized demands of male-dominated institutions.
- The "Myth of the Great Artist" assumes that artists possess some innate genius but disregards sociological and other influences on the development of artistic talent.
1. Fathers and other close relatives who were artists were a major influence on the great artists.
2. Time demands on women (analogous to those on the aristocracy) often precluded them from becoming great artists.
3. Women artists had virtually no access to nude models of either gender until recently, yet the nude model was essential to the training of the aspiring artist.
4. Additional institutions in which discrimination against women discouraged their development as artists.
There's nothing wrong with combining techniques. Here's an example that combines topic and sentence outline techniques:
Slavery, Rape, and Anita Hill: How the Treatment of Professor Hill During the Clarence Thomas Senate Confirmation Hearings Has its Roots in the Rape of Black Women under Slavery
II. The Institutionalization of Rape under Slavery
- Dual exploitation of slave women as both laborers and reproducers
- Treatment of slave women who resisted forcible intercourse
- Perversion of the black-male role through he rape of slave women
- Lack of legal sanction for rape of slave women
- Characterization of slave women as promiscuous concubines and prostitutes
- The Abolitionist view of the rape of slave women
- "Cliometricians" who attempted to downplay the extent of rape under slavery
III. The Race-Gender Discourse in the Lynching Climate of Post-Slavery
- Characterization of black women continues to be one of immorality and licentiousness
1. Black women thought to be immoral to the extent that syphilis was thought to be spread by diseased genital organs of black women.
2. Seen in "binary opposition" to their "moral" white counterparts.
3. "Moral" white counterparts seen as irresistible to the rapacious black man.
- Black men thought to be routinely raping white women without the "civilizing" influence of slavery.
1. Ida B. Wells's research shows fallacies of this assumption.
2. As a result, all black women branded "prostitutes, thieves and liars."
3. This criticism spurs formation of regional organizations for black women.
IV. Stonewalled Race-Gender Discourse in the Era of the Black Woman's Organization
- Black women prevented from talking about interracial gender relations and sexuality
1. by Social Darwinism
2. by blame-the-victim mentality
3. by statistics that showed higher rate of syphilis and infant mortality among blacks
- To protect themselves, black women adopted "behavior and attitudes . . . that created the appearance of openness and disclosure but actually shielded the truth of their inner lives and selves from their oppressors."
- It is from this climate of the hidden inner truths of black women's lives that Anita Hill's testimony was met with such incredulity.
Final Thoughts on the Power of Outlining Papers
Outlining provides a good checkpoint for how well supported your arguments are. Since instructors cite "failure to support thesis" as the second most serious flaw of college papers, it's important to bolster every point carefully. Developing an outline enables you to see whether you can put forth strong supporting points for every facet of your thesis. If during the outlining process you come across a statement you can't back up, you may want to consider omitting that point.
Perhaps even more importantly, an outline helps with the student writing flaw that professors cite as their Number One pet peeve: poor organization. An effective outline helps you organize your thoughts and shows the professor you've really put time in up front thinking about your topic before you started writing. A final caution: Don't let your outline become so much of a crutch that it makes you overconfident with your progress. Not matter how great the outline, you still have to write the paper.
Finally, remember that outlining can be a great tool that helps you organize both your thoughts and your writing -- making your writing stronger and moving you toward receiving better grades on your papers and other written assignments.
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key academic terms by going to our College Success Glossary.
Dr. Randall S. Hansen, CEO of EmpoweringSites.com, has been empowering people his entire adult life -- to help them better their lives. In fact, empowerment is part of his professional philosophy statement. He is also founder of Quintessential Careers, one of the oldest and most comprehensive career development sites on the Web, as well as founder of MyCollegeSuccessStory.com and EnhanceMyVocabulary.com. He is publisher of Quintessential Careers Press as well as a published author, with several books, chapters in books, and hundreds of articles. He's often quoted in the media and conducts empowering workshops around the country. Hansen is also an educator, having taught at the college level for more than 15 years.
Dr. Katharine Hansen, Creative Director of EmpoweringSites.com, is a former speechwriter and college instructor who provides content for several of our sites, including Quintessential Careers, MyCollegeSuccessStory.com, and EnhanceMyVocabulary.com. She also edits QuintZine, an electronic newsletter for job-seekers, career counselors, and students. She is author of Dynamic Cover Letter for New Graduates; A Foot in the Door: Networking Your Way into the Hidden Job Market; and, with Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D., Dynamic Cover Letters and Write Your Way to a Higher GPA, all published by Ten Speed Press. She can be reached by e-mail at kathy(at)quintcareers.com.