Rethinking the way I use outlining as a prewriting tool

by Mr. Sheehy

Make an outline. Or a bubble map. Or something.

That’s what learning writers have to do, right? An outline demonstrates that the writer has planned what they’re writing and haven’t just jotted down the first ten random things that popped into their heads, or, worse yet, jotted down five things but repeated the second and third in between each of the others. The procedure echoes what many of us have been taught–I certainly had to create an outline for most of my papers in high school–as well as the great guides that have managed to hold sway in an era of little authority. Stunk and White, for example, point this out under the heading, “Choose a suitable design and hold to it”:

In most cases, planning must be a deliberate prelude to writing. The first principle of composition, therefore, is to foresee or determine the shape of what is to come and pursue that shape. . . . all [forms of composition] have skeletons to which the writer will bring the flesh and blood. The more clearly the writer perceives the shape, the better are the chances of success. (15)

In that vein this year I have re-asserted the importance of the five paragraph essay. The five paragraph essay has always been something I have taught, so it’s not like I’m returning to doing my job; I’m just assigning more of them and giving them higher prominence, so as to force students to engage in the process that Strunk and White articulate. I enjoy having students create reflective writing and assign quite a bit of it, but I’ve increased my use of the five paragraph essay under the adage of, you can’t break the rule till you know the rule. If students can organize a rigid essay, perhaps they can better organize a reflective one.

Paired with this reassertion comes a call for outlines, which I’ve instructed students to create before they write each five paragraph essay. In my utopian moments I plan to approve their outlines before they begin the actual writing, but in reality I simply have them hand in the outline along with their final draft, because I never seem to have time in class to check with everyone before they’re ready to write.

A copy of J.K. Rowling's plot map for Order of the Phoenix.

A copy of J.K. Rowling’s plot map for Order of the Phoenix.

The struggle I have had with this method is that many students create their outline after they write the actual paper, even though those weren’t my instructions. For a long time this drove me crazy, as the point was for students to plan their writing before they began jotting sentences. No matter how much I repeated the purpose of the outline, they’d skip it, saying it’s not how they do things. “It’s how I do things!” is the response I was tempted to shout at them.

As I’ve thought about that imaginary response a bit longer I’ve realized the reality: it’s not how I do things. It’s how I assign writing, but it’s not how I write. When I write, I have a general idea in my head, a basic direction, and once I can dimly see that picture I begin, game to see where the words will take me. As usual, that’s what I’m doing with this article. I know where I want to go, but I don’t have some outline nearby giving me direction. I carry a mental image of my purpose, which, if I were to draw it, would have soft edges and fuzzy, indistinct words.

How relevant, how genuine, is my insistence that my students draw this outline when I do nothing of the kind myself? In the past I’ve justified that discrepancy by pointing out that I learned to outline so efficiently when I was younger that I do that in my head; in that sense, my claim was that for me the outlining and organizing step is at the point of being automatic or unconscious. But I think that is a bit disingenuous, because usually I don’t go that far in my thinking. Usually once I get a clear idea of my goal I begin trying things out.

A couple weeks ago a student handed me his paper, and when he realized he’d forgotten his outline, he took the paper back, sketched a quick picture of his organization, and resubmitted it. The moment he did that I realized, why not?

Why not let my students write their outlines after they write? If they can draw a picture of their organization, then it’s there; the chronology is a moot point. If they can’t even draw a picture of it, however, then that should clue both of us into their lack of organizational structure and give me a good area to instruct my student in writing better.

To this point I have sighed at my inability to dictate procedure. Now, I think, I’ll not so much sigh at it as embrace it. Looking at it this way, I can say openly to students that I don’t care when they map out their paper, just that they do, because if they can’t draw or outline their structure, it isn’t there.

Perhaps, in that way, the outlining can be one more way to demonstrate to students what great writing does.

As always, we’ll see.

Thanks for reading.