That Dreaded Thing, the Outline

I have never met anyone—perhaps somewhere such a person lives—who will cheerfully exclaim, I enjoy drafting an outline before I begin writing. There are persons who enjoy crossword puzzles and math games of every sort, but when it comes to putting our thoughts into a grid, most of us shiver and just start writing to get the whole difficult business finished.

The observation to be made here is this: outlining is both planning and discovery. It begins with a subject, or theme, and it proceeds by sectionalizing that area of investigation into topics. The derivation of the word topic is instructive. It originates from the Greek word for place, and so the divisions we mark off in an outline are meant to represent regions or points we will cross as we make our way through a subject. But listing such points can at the same time be an act of discovery, because we are now coming to characterize the general theme we began with as we think about the points we will cross. We are inclined to contrast our creative mood of discovery with our more calculating and planning frame of mind; but the two, in truth, are much more closely related—correlative, even—and recognizing that can make us more patient with the often admittedly tedious work of framing out our thoughts.

We should begin an outline by naming the subject, or theme. Where are we going? The title of an outline is not part of the outline proper; it stands at the head of the page to mark the direction in which we are about to travel. It need not be the final title we will use, but it needs at least to be accurate in its generality. Next, we put down the Roman numeral I. to identify the first topic, the first place we will visit in the theme. This first topic is not to be named Introduction. Everything we write of any substance has an introduction (as it has also a conclusion), and so the introduction stands outside, and prior to, the outline proper. Remember that topics are divisions (here’s where our more rational frame of mind comes to bear), and so to name the first topic, we must cast our mind in the direction of the theme and begin to see what characterizes one particular district of the subject. So if my working title is Schools in Metropolitan Chicago, for example, I might make my first topic I. Levels of Education.

Now the next step in building an outline is particularly important. Outlining is dividing, and when we divide, we inevitably get at least two parts. So if I choose to divide one of my topics, I must create at least two subtopics. We mark a first subtopic in an outline with the capital letter A., and continue with the next capital letter for as many divisions of the topic as we think are relevant. So in order to make clear to myself what it is I will talk about when I reach the first topic of Levels of Education, I might next mark A. Primary. But that first division necessitates another, and so I continue with my subtopics: B. Secondary and C. Postsecondary. The rule, then, is that every division we make to a topic must be at least twofold. And that rule applies to the division of subtopics as well—to any division we ever make, in fact, because division creates at least two of something. It’s a metaphysical thing.

In a topical outline, the kind we have been discussing here, we write only words or phrases for each topic or subtopic. If section I. A. reads Primary, for example, then I. B. should not read There are Schools for Secondary Education. In fact, even Schools for Secondary Education would be too much, because the word Schools would repeat the very subject of the document, Schools in Metropolitan Chicago. That said, there is also something called a sentence outline, in which every topic and subtopic is constructed with a sentence, not with merely a word or phrase. The sentence outline is usually more than most of us need, but whichever kind we choose, one rule is absolute: don’t mix and match. If you keep to this admonition in a topic outline, you’ll be able to read through it much more efficiently as you begin to compose the document.

And that, after all, is what an outline is ultimately for: writing. Some subjects are so involved that we have to have an outline, a mental map, before we head off into the thicket. Other subjects, particularly those with which we are very familiar, don’t require such elaborate preparation, and for these themes writers speak of a sketch outline, made before, and even during, one’s travels. Either way, an outline is a direction, with both order and clarity as its goals. Those are irresistibly inviting qualities to every reader, and to ourselves as well as we write to understand.



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