Why Should I Create an Outline?

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The next step in the prewriting process is the outline, but what is it and why should you make one?

At this point, you should have your topic, central message, and narrative. You will build on those to create an outline, the next layer in organizing your paper before you begin to write. But aside from personal preference, why create an outline at all?

To save yourself time and effort. The outline serves several purposes that all contribute to reducing the amount of revision your first draft will need.

1. Reduce mental load.

At this point, there are probably a lot of bits and pieces of your paper that are floating around in your head. The outline is a perfect place to keep these for future use. Getting them out and onto paper frees up a lot of brainspace, which you’ll need for the research stage of prewriting. Additionally, the bullet point format will demonstrate the areas where you either have, or lack, expertise. And now you have a handy structure to add information to during your literature review to help track your progress .

2. Improve organization.

The bullet point format is also helpful for preempting repetitive information and making connections between topics to improve the overall flow of your manuscript. By outlining each section and their paragraphs first, you can ensure that each paragraph is essential in advancing your narrative and more easily identify (and rearrange) related information or logical connections to aid topic transitions. If you’re feeling stuck, there are outline prompts and resources at the bottom of the page.

3. Ensure advisor compatibility.

It can feel pretty defeating to write a 4,000 word first draft that your advisor either completely rearranges or scraps. Avoid that frustration for both you and your advisor by presenting them with a detailed outline. Going over the outline with your advisor can help eliminate potential problems by identifying areas that will need to be expanded, moved, or eliminated all together. Working with your advisor on the outline will also give both of you confidence in the drafting process, since you both have an understanding of what will be discussed and the order. To get the most out of the discussion, consider waiting until you have a more detailed post-literature review.

Remember, the writing process is messy, so your first outline won’t be perfect. Instead, much like your final product, it will be in constant flux until you’ve moved past the revision stage. The upside is that it’s easier to change bulleted text instead of prose!

Outline Prompts

Introduction

  • What information and/or context will the reader need to adequately understand everything that will be presented in the results?

  • What is the rationale for the study? What gap is it addressing?

  • What key techniques were used in the study?

Results (each subsection)

  • What is the rationale for the experiment, what question will it answer?

  • What are the key points of setup that the reader needs to know to draw conclusions?

  • What are the possible conclusions from this experiment? What would the results be for each outcome?

  • What were the results?

  • What is your conclusion based on the described results?

Discussion

  • Briefly, what were the major results and conclusions?

  • Put your findings in context with other studies, where do they line up or contradict?

  • What do these findings mean for the field at large?

  • What are the limitations to your conclusions?

  • What do you want your reader to do and/or remember from your results?

Resources:

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Ada K. Hagan
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I am a microbiologist with a passion for making science accessible. I hope to use my background in communications and higher education to help make scientific concepts more easily understood and make the academy more inclusive to future scientists from all backgrounds.