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The Beauty of Outlines


What Is an Outline?

Think how much easier it is to view the whole manuscript or research proposal when you have only short, bulleted phrases to deal with as opposed to long, complex paragraphs. This is what an outline should do--allow you to order, categorize, and plan your writing.

Why Should You Make an Outline?

In the long run, making an outline will not only save you substantial time, but it can sometimes even save you money. More importantly, making an outline will help you avoid the agony of working your way through a large number of drafts and will help you end up with a better, more logically structured end-product in a less painful manner. Most people are not capable of seeing the structure of a 12-page document at a glance. But a good one- to two-page outline that consists of brief, pithy phrases can be readily perused by the average reader.

How Should You Make an Outline?

There are several ways to make an outline. The traditional way is to use index cards--you put one topic or subtopic on each index card, color-code the corners according to general subject matter, and rearrange the cards until everything is in good logical order. When you are confident that you have covered all the necessary topics and they are in optimal order, write from the card pack. If you are not a computer user and you prefer to work on a vertical surface, modern technology now offers an alternative: Find an empty room and use 3M Post-it Notes in place of index cards.

Things to Consider Before You Start the Outline

  • What will you be writing about? (This may also lead to a title)
  • Who will be the audience?
  • What is the audience's level of understanding of this subject?
  • How much can you assume the audience already knows about the subject?
  • How much background do you need to provide?
  • What does this particular audience need or want to know about this subject?
  • What topics do you plan to cover?
  • In what order will you discuss the topics?
  • In how much depth will you describe each topic?
  • What information about each topic do you need to research further before you begin to write?

Of course, the best way to make your outline is on a computer--but it's important to understand that using a word processor is not a substitute for making an outline. Use the word processor to type the outline and then convert the outline to prose when you are completely satisfied with the content and the logical flow.

Most word processing programs now have built in outline processors--though many computer users seem to be unaware of this option. In Microsoft Word, "Outline" mode is in the "View" menu; in Word Perfect, "Outlining" is in the "Tools" menu. I prefer to use a dedicated outline processor such as those designed by Inspiration Software. This particular program allows you to make and expand either a vertical outline or a pictorial/graphical concept map and switch between these two modes with one keystroke.

When my outline is as good as I think I can get it, I simply export it into my word processing program, remove the indents, add the requisite connecting words, and with very little additional effort I have a logical, finished product that usually requires relatively little revision.

Don't begin to write until you are 99.99% happy with your outline. You may, at first, be shocked by the suggestion that you should use 60% of your total project time to make the outline, 10% to convert it to prose, and 30% to revise. If you use 90% of the time to make a really superb outline, you will have little more work to do! And, more importantly, you will have a document with good logical flow that makes your writing easy for the reader to understand.

Getting Started

For certain types of writing projects, the main topics of the outline may be dictated by a set of instructions. For example, if you are making an outline for a grant application, the outline should account for every item requested in the agency instructions and should have the items in the order requested by the funding agency. Many proposal writers do not even recognize that the agency has done part of the work by providing the first--and sometimes second--levels of the outline, which are usually denoted by roman numerals and prescribe major headings that need to be included. It's like picking ripe fruit off a tree: You can start with level three.

Likewise, if you are writing a research paper, start to make your outline using the instructions of the journal for the format/headings the journal requires; e.g., Summary, Introduction/Background, Methods, Discussion, References.

Although you must present the final document in the order dictated by the funding agency or the journal, it is not necessary that you work on the parts of the outline in that order. For example, in a grant application which requires an Abstract, Specific Aims, Background, Progress Report--or Preliminary Studies in the case of an initial application--Research Design and Methods, and Literature Cited, it would be wise to outline the sections in the following order: Progress Report/Preliminary Studies, Specific Aims, Research Design and Methods, Background, and Literature Cited. The Abstract should come later ...

Before you turn the outline to prose, check that all sections of the proposal parallel each other in form and content. If you have three specific aims, for example, you should have three subsections under "Research Design" and three subsections under "Methods" that follow the order of the specific aims. The "Background" section should provide the background for each of the proposed specific aims, if at all possible, in the same order as in the specific aims. The order of items in a Progress Report of a renewal application should parallel the order of the specific aims of the preceding proposal.

When you are sure that your outline is complete and you are happy with it, go back and check once more for good logical order and parallel construction.

The time to write the Abstract (according to the agency instructions) is when you are totally satisfied with your outline--or perhaps even when you have converted the outline to prose and have printed out the final draft of the body of the proposal. That way the Abstract is sure to accurately reflect what you have actually proposed, and you will have a good, finished document.

A Sample Outline

Liane Reif-Lehrer conducts grant-writing workshops across the U.S. and other countries. Applicants, she says, fail to properly read and comprehend application instructions, and they typically remember those instructions that are easy to fulfill and forget those that are more intricate. To fully address straightforward and complex instructions, make sure outlines tackle all aspects of the application instructions. Below is an example of part of an outline that Reif-Lehrer uses in her workshops. Similar structuring can be used for different sections of an application.

Address each of the four items listed below. The first part, Background, will generally be the longest part of this section, even though it is often the least important from the perspective of the reviewer's ability to judge the quality of the applicant as a scientist. Any bright high school senior can probably write a good Background section, given enough time in the library. It takes the knowledge, experience, and perspective of a good scientist to evaluate the existing knowledge in the field.

  • Background

-Provide only that background material which is relevant to the proposed project.
-(Refer to pertinent references in the Literature Cited section.)

  • Critical Evaluation of Existing Knowledge
  • Gaps Which Project Is Intended to Fill
  • Importance and Health Relevance (Relate broad, long-term objectives to specific aims.)

-Specific Aim 1 will ... toward the broad, long-term objectives. The health relevance is ...
-Specific Aim 2 will ... toward the broad, long-term objectives. The health relevance is ...
-Specific Aim 3 will ... toward the broad, long-term objectives. The health relevance is ...