The Outline – A Writer’s Road Map – Don’t Leave Home without It!
Guest post by Carla D. Bass, Colonel, USAF (Ret) published by Women’s Owned Business Club
The outline is the critical first step in writing for business reports or academic submissions. Use this tool to focus, structure, and strategize your message. It’s the first step in leveraging readers’ time to your advantage!
What do these have in common: A family taking an extended road trip, a company building a skyscraper, a general leading forces into battle, a football coach preparing his team for the big game, and a writer?
Answer: Each needs a plan. The family navigates with a roadmap (digital or paper). The builder uses an architectural drawing. The general employs a strategy to beat the foe. The coach generates a play book.
The astute writer develops an outline, which equates to the roadmap, the architectural drawing, the military strategy, and the play book.
I specify astute because authors who eschew an outline disadvantage themselves and their readers.
- What is an outline?
It’s a tool that helps an author identify and organize major topics, subtopics, and supporting details. Simply put, an outline frames the paper, enabling the author to: 1) Visualize the overall message 2) Determine and structure the flow of key points and 3) Spot items that need to be amplified.
- Why do I need an outline? Isn’t it extraneous? Why can’t I just write?
I respond with a riddle … What do these have in common: A marathon runner, Mom or Dad who manages the family’s monthly budget, and a writer?
Answer: Each balances conflicting interests. The runner balances: time and distance against available energy and stamina. Mom or Dad prioritizes the family’s needs against available funds. The author’s writing is constrained by the reader’s time (fleeting) and allocated space (often limited).
The outline equates to the runner’s stopwatch or the family’s budget … it enables the author to define, structure, and pace the delivery of the message.
- How can an outline help me?
In a word … focus. Remember the reader’s time and allocated space. An outline helps the writer stay on message, maximizing those valuable commodities. Think gutter protectors in a bowling alley. Think blinders on a horse. The outline helps the author:
- Avoid wasting time on tangents that dilute or confuse the message
- Confirm that the draft addresses all intended points
- Determine if information not reflected in the outline supports the thesis
- Structure and present a well-conceived message
I’m convinced. How do I develop an outline?
State your thesis, then list and label major points and supporting ideas for each. Follow the structured format — Roman and Arabic numerals along with capital and small letters. Correlate the conclusion to the thesis. Google to find more detailed “how to” instructions.
Writing is messy; concepts evolve while drafting. It’s OK to adjust the outline. However, ensure alterations support the thesis. How? Correlate each topic sentence to the thesis … one by one. Topic sentences are akin to stepping stones, leading the reader from your thesis through the key points to the conclusion. An illogical jaunt in the message indicates something is off.
See the many benefits? The outline is a writer’s roadmap — Don’t leave home without it!