Logical Outlines

When you are writing a paper, you usually want to begin not with an answer, but with a question—a serious question.  This should be a question with multiple possible answers that a reasonable person could propose.  Sometimes the writing prompt given to you by your professor or instructor will provide you with this question; most of the time it will not.   However, even when you are given the question directly, you want to put your own spin or angle on the question for your outline and for your paper.  Show your reader how you understand the question, or what aspect of the question is most interesting, or needs the most emphasis.

Then, think about your attempt to answer the question as a conversation between you and the text or texts you are reading and writing about.  You propose the question, and then different pieces of the text give you an answer, or at least part of one; sometimes the answer goes off topic but in a way that adds to the discussion; other times it addresses the question only obliquely, sideways, or from its own angle. The act of going through the text and looking for these moments is brainstorming, and the places where the text addresses your question are potential points and pieces of evidence. Brainstorming is one of the most important steps in writing a paper.  Of course, this step usually involves not only remembering bits and pieces of the text, but also going back over notes, and even rereading the text with this new question in mind.

Note: Sometimes you will realize that, like a real person, your text contradicts itself, or that it contradicts another text in the conversation.  When this happens, do not ignore the problem, or throw up your hands and give up and change topics or questions. Instead, think about how you could synthesize these ideas, and what sort of middle ground could be created, or if certain things are true only in certain contexts.  Don’t gloss over those problematic moments in the text; sometimes, these are the most important pieces of evidence and thinking hard about them leads to the best arguments and thesis statements.

Once you have brainstormed how the text responds to your questions, you can respond to these pieces of evidence yourself—what do you think about each one?  Why does it seem important? What is going on in each example, beyond the obvious? (You can do this either as you go through your evidence piece by piece, or you can do it all at once, but you should respond at least briefly to each piece by the time you are done).

Then, look at the evidence and your responses together.  Can you find patterns in the text, or in your own responses to the text?  Group those things that say the same sorts of things together, and find a succinct way to describe them.  Now, you are starting to develop the pieces of your outline.  You may want to order these pieces of evidence in terms of importance, or you may want to decide which small patterns or observations lead to the larger patterns, and organize them accordingly.  These are two (of many) options for organizing your outline.

The general framework for your outline should something look like this, but with actual sentences and a considerably greater amount of detail:

1. The Question! Make sure you put the question into your own words and explain why you think the question is important.
2. Main Point 1
a. Subpoint or Evidence
i. Evidence for Subpoint (if necessary)
1. Commentary, brief thoughts
ii. Evidence for Subpoint (if necessary)
1. Commentary, brief thoughts
b. Subpoint or Evidence
i. Evidence for Subpoint (if necessary)
1. Commentary, brief thoughts
ii. Evidence for Subpoint (if necessary)
1. Commentary, brief thoughts
3. Main Point 2
a. Subpoint or Evidence
i. Evidence for Subpoint (if necessary)
1. Commentary, brief thoughts
b. Subpoint or Evidence
i. Evidence for Subpoint (if necessary)
1. Commentary, brief thoughts
c. Subpoint or Evidence
i. Commentary, brief thoughts
4. Main Point 3
a. Etc.
5. Main Point 4
a. Etc.
6. Possible Conclusions / Answers to the Question: This should be a summary (anywhere from one sentence to a whole paragraph) of how all your points add up to a potential answer to your question.  One way to think about this is that the conclusions you start to draw here will probably become your thesis.

Do not get caught in the trap of the 5 paragraph/part essay where you have an introduction, three main body points or paragraphs, and a conclusion.  First of all, if you actually try and write an 8 page paper with only five paragraphs, those paragraphs will get mighty long.  Second, there is no set number of points for a paper (or set number of pieces of evidence for a point), only the number of points or pieces of evidence necessary to fully explore and answer your question. Be conscious of the fact that some points may actually be subpoints or parts of larger points.  Feel free to give either full quotations or paraphrase/summary for evidence, but always include the page number for each piece of evidence.  You should have some sort of evidence for each point.

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