Outlining - A Powerful Writing Tool

April 22, 2019

Outlining isn't just something to do before you get to the real assignment - outlining is a thinking tool that guides the assignment. 

Outlines are messy, living documents that serve the writer while they wrestle to put their thoughts and ideas into a structure that is easy for the reader to consume. The tidy, organized structure of an outline guide is deceptive. 

When we give students the freedom to use an outline as a thinking tool and the permission to make changes to it throughout the writing process, they'll see their outline as a powerful tool rather than a strict master. 

Five Benefits of Outlining 

1. Write Faster

By creating an order before writing, students will be able to stay in the flow, knowing that it will make sense and not be repetitive. They need only write what they've already decided. No decision making required. That first draft will be ugly, but it will have all the parts that they've pre-planned. 

2. Write With Focus

Without an outline, it's easy to get off topic, or include details that don't matter. An outline keeps students focused on the subject. It reminds them of all the thinking they did and is a road map to get their reader from point A to point B logically. 

3. Write Confidently

An outline will make it clear where the holes are in the student's essay or story. 

Are there details that they need to add? Are some points weak and need further research? Are they missing examples? 

By filling in the gaps before they start writing your first draft, it will be easier to stay in the flow once they get writing. 

4. Write Creatively

As you ask questions and come up with answers, your original ideas might change. An outline allows you to play with a variety of ideas without committing to one before you're ready. Because you haven't committed your first idea to a draft, you'll be more likely to consider several ideas before writing your entire composition. 

5. Write Freely - no more writer's block!

Knowing what to write eliminates writer's block. Once a student has completed their outline, they need to do the work. 

As Mark Twain said, "The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one." 

The outline has broken down the composition into manageable tasks. Because the student knows the direction of their story or essay, they know what they need to write, and can start writing at any point in the outline. Being able to write paragraphs and scenes out of order is a freedom that comes because of the outline, and a great way to overcome writer's block. 

Imagine if your student started to enjoy writing as a process? 

Psychologist Sarah Ransdell, Ph.D., a writing-cognition researcher, and professor at Nova Southeastern University notes that "The child or the adult who is writing, and changing what they write as they go, is doing something called knowledge transformation. That is the best you can hope for in writing - allowing it to change how you think."

Allow your student's outline to be a living document. As students realize that sometimes they'll only know what they think when they write it down, or that their ideas will change and develop throughout a writing assignment, their writing will deepen and mature. Their attitude toward writing will start to shift, and they'll begin to appreciate the process - even if they won't admit it.