27 Diversify Your Outlines

Christopher Morales

When teaching students how to write there’s always been a debate between process and product.  Some teachers  would argue that the process of writing is more important than the product as it is the  process that informs the product.  Some say that regardless of the methods, the product will present the process, it doesn’t matter how you hit it,  gold is gold. However, while these two may not be the same concept; they are not mutually exclusive. By and large, when  Teaching students how to write,  teachers focus on structure and process. Regardless of whether this approach to teaching English is correct or incorrect, one tool commonly used in teaching writing structure is outlines, specifically formal outlines. In a formal outline structure dictates that a student use section headings to break up their overarching arguments and ideas to fit the structure of what they’re writing. The structure of  formal outlines  require students to use full sentences and maintain the structural standard of a formal outline, those being capitalization, indentation, etc.

To start, it is true that the use of formal lines can be extremely helpful in assisting  writers to organize their thoughts and ideas and help with the structure and flow of the writing. However, this is all but guaranteed not to be the best organizational tool for most students. Imagine being a freshman in English class, your professor just signed you a two page  essay about the  biggest family trip you’ve ever taken.  While seeming like a simple enough task to  recount the events of your family vacation,   You run into a hiccup.  That Hiccup being that your teachers require you to write a formal outline for  20% of the assignment. While in theory, regardless of the piece of writing, formal outline should work to help in the writing process, in this instance not only does it fail to do so but it works as an active hindrance to students’ writing process.

What’s important to remember is that outlines are a tool, And while built to serve the specific purpose of helping writers to organize and develop their thoughts, it’s not always the only, or even the best tool available.

If  formal outlines aren’t the best tool, then what is? The answer is, there is no best tool. There are, in fact, many tools open for students to use,  and the goal is Define the one tool that’s going to serve the biggest benefits to them. I once had a professor  with extensive writing experience, but found traditional means of organization like formal outlines to be too restrictive and found its structure oppressive in his creative process. In this instance, the organization system that worked best for him is what I’ll call storyboarding. Storyboarding is when a writer draws visual representation of what he plans to write. For Professor Chris’ friend , visual  representations  we’re the best way for him to reflect the ideas, Concepts, and avenues for his writing  that he wanted to map out. In my case,  while I do prefer something  with a bit more structure and less room for interpretation,  I still need a certain level of freedom. Which is why when I  make up an outline for a piece of writing,  it’s an overview of key Concepts at important points of the writing.  Having only important  ideas/concepts with which to direct my thinking  and a few  key ideas to put in between,  I have free reign  to link those points and whichever way I see fit.  While the structure of a formal outline is conducive to people who require a lot of structure in their writing to help guide them through the process, It’s too stifling to people like my professor and I While on the other end of the spectrum a student who needs that additional structure to keep them from falling off course but never be able to use storyboarding.

So how are you supposed to implement this new process in the classroom? Since by and large most writing assignments  already have a section  that requires students to make a formal outline, all that needs to be done is remove the “formal”. No page length or word requirement, no grammar or spelling checks, and no requirements on indentation and full sentences. While teachers have the right idea in mind of getting students to organize and plan out their writing ahead of time,  the  extent to which students plan their  writing should be up to them.  Instead of forcing students to follow formal lines which they probably won’t do until after the assignments are already done, try instead to give them three to five options of outlines  and have them use the one that works best for them.  Since only the student knows why they need more structure or freedom to raise the quality of their writing, This choice  is all but guaranteed to lead to  an uptake in quality.

The important thing to remember is that when helping students with their writing ,  there’s a scale between Quality  and effort. The goal of an outline, formal or otherwise is to give a student easier time  in creating better writing. Whether students need more  structure or more freedom and their writing process is something only they will know for themselves. While formal outlines are the standard,  taking the  extra step  to find what works best for each student,  personally, is what’s going to lead to long-term success.


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Good Ideas About Writing by Christopher Morales is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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