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Monday Master Class: How to Use a Flat Outline to Write Outstanding Papers, Fast

November 5th, 2007 · 31 comments

The Outline OrthodoxyPaper Writing

For decades, students have been held captive by a rigid paper outline orthodoxy. It is first ingrained in elementary school and then reinforced, year after year, until college graduation. Visit the web site for your school’s academic skills department and you’ll find some variation on the following advice:

The basic format for an outline should use an alternating series of numbers and letters, indented accordingly, to indicate levels of importance.

This leads to examples such as:

  1. Rothko Chapel in Houston
    1. Architecture
      1. Letter to Philip Johnson proposing idea
      2. The three concepts suggested in first conversation

…and so on.

Here’s the rub: this format is nonsense! It’s way too confining. It’s impossible to figure out every detail of your argument before you sit down, look at your sources, and actually try to write. Most students abandon their hierarchical outline soon after their fingers hit the keyboard. Those that stick with it end up producing dry, forced-sounding arguments.

I want to show you a better way…

Introducing the Topic

Forget hierarchies. Your outline should capture the topics you want to discuss in your paper. A topic is more general than a specific fact or observation, but less general that a multi-argument discussion. For example:

  • “Letter to Philip Johnson suggesting chapel idea” is too specific to be a topic.
  • “The conception and construction of the Rothko chapel” is too general to be a topic.
  • “Rothko’s Courting of Philip Johnson” is a perfect topic.

Topics are what you’ll capture with our outlining process. You do so as follows…

Step 1: The Topic Skeleton

During the story crafting stage of the paper writing process (discussed in detail here), you’ll start determining, based on the sources you’ve discovered so far, what topics you want to cover in your paper. Start recording these in a word processor document.

As you work on your argument, you will begin to order these topics into the order that you want them to appear in your paper. Once this ordering is complete, you have constructed a topic skeleton. It describes, at a rough granularity, what you want to talk about and in what order.

Step 2: Fill In Research Gaps

Once you’re happy with your topic skeleton, consult the sources you discovered during your research process. Make sure you have solid sources for each of the topics in your topic skeleton. If you discover a topic that is lacking in information, go back to the library to find more information to fill in this gap. (Remember, make personal copies of your sources for easier handling.)

Step 3: Dump the Quotes

Here is where our process really challenges the outline orthodoxy. Stick with me here. This works…

In the document containing your topic skeleton: start typing, under each topic, all of the quotes from your sources that you think are relevant. Label each quote with the source it came from.

We call the final document a topic-level outline. Unlike the compact, hierarchical outlines promoted by the orthodoxy, a topic-level outline is huge (close the size of your finished paper), and flat in structure (no reason to use 18 different levels of indentations here.)

Step 4: Transform, Don’t Create

When you write your paper, don’t start from a blank document. Instead, make a copy of your topic-level outline and transform it into the finished paper. For each topic, begin writing, right under the topic header, grabbing the quotes you need as you move along. Remember, these quotes are right below you in the document and are immediately accessible.

Over time, each topic gets transformed from a collection of quotes into solid writing using those quotes. During this writing process, there is no need to ever leave this one document. This approach allows you too:

  1. Write much more efficiently, without the delay of consulting sources.
  2. Craft better arguments, because the raw material is already in front of you, reducing your task to simply to employing it in your rhetorical assault, no seeking it out.
  3. Avoid the pain of facing a blank screen. The writing task is now one of transformation, not creation, which is much easier to tackle.

In Summary

To summarize the advice in this post:

  1. Don’t build a hierarchical outline. Instead, list the topics you want to tackle in the order you want to tackle.
  2. Revisit the library to find sources for the topics that still need support.
  3. Dump all relevant quotes from your sources under the topics.
  4. Transform your topic-level outline into your paper. Don’t start from a blank screen.

This process is different from what most students are used to. But it works. It is optimized for exactly the steps needed to write an outstanding paper. If you face a lot of writing assignments in your classes give this approach a try. You’ll never look back…

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31 thoughts on “Monday Master Class: How to Use a Flat Outline to Write Outstanding Papers, Fast

  1. Kelly Sutton says:

    I’m going to have to try this the next time I’m writing a paper… which might not be for awhile actually :).

  2. Sherman Dorn says:

    Much of this makes sense. Let me suggest a tweak: while you can write top-level outline blurbs as topics, revise them into sentences that make arguments. Then they become the natural topic sentences of body paragraphs (or leading points of larger sections).

  3. Study Hacks says:


    Good tip. From topic to topic sentence could be useful step in the transition from outline to writing.

  4. Sue says:

    Thanks for the great advice!

  5. Christopher Weuve says:

    I’ve used two different systems over the years. With the first, I put all of the quotes on index cards or a sheet of paper, and then draft an outline afterwards. The second system puts more premium on the outline first, and then I go and look for citations supporting the points.

    I find that which method I use really depends on the subject — if I am inspired and an outline comes to me, I do the second. If I need a little bit of oomph to gte going, the act of extracting quotes usually does it.

  6. Jordan says:

    This definitely goes along with my thinking process. It seems less scattered than the usual trying to squeeze info into an outline somehow. Thanks for the great tip.

  7. Ismail Fan says:

    I really like your articles and by implementing some of your advice I’m beginning to enjoy life more. Thank you!

  8. Kam says:

    I just wanted to thank you for the great advice. I’ve been using this and it really does make writing essays a lot easier. I used to write just the minimum, but now I find myself writing a little more. I love the idea of putting quotes into the outline. I got A’s on all my papers since using this. So thank you!

  9. carrie says:

    hey, this is exactly what i do! glad to know someone else likes this idea.
    it’s so much easier to pull the quotes and build around them. writing within the outline doesn’t even feel like work – “hey, just outlining here” – and soon enough the work is all done.

  10. alice says:

    OMG this is exactly what I do too! It feels like so much less work because its more like connecting the dots than building from scratch. And depending on how you do it, most of the writing is already done in the planning stage.

  11. Doug Sibley says:

    I did the same with most of my papers in grad school (at least the ones I did well on). The first step for me though, was to get a stack of books on a topic I was interested in and then just read them putting scraps of paper on interesting pages. When I had some brain-dead time (i.e. time set aside for ‘studying’ but was too tired or burnt-out to do it) I would put large quotes into an outline with a few sentences of my own that related.

    I’d do the same with web sources another day (though the cutting and pasting of quotes was easier). For the paper, I’d expand on each quote in a narrative paring most down and eliminating a fair number that didn’t end up on-topic. So in the end my problem wouldn’t usually be to “get enough sources” or to “write enough words” but to keep the length manageable and the topic focused (which is usually a nice problem to have!)

  12. Sarah says:

    This is basically what I do, but what about papers written in parts? They’re totally obnoxious, forcing you to either A) Write your paper all before the first part is due, and hand it in part by part, or B) you write it in parts, and have a messed up train of thought. Should I make the outline all at once, and transform it part-by-part?

  13. Doug Toft says:

    I keep coming back to this post. It has changed my writing life. Thanks much.

  14. Angelina says:

    As Mr. Toft says, I always come back to this post too (and I have all of your books to keep me company, Cal). I’ve written a post about my experience using this outline method for the first time:
    It has really helped. I went from a C+ to an A on papers.

  15. I write whatever paragraphs and phrases come to mind in a plain text file. When the next idea is disconnected I leave plenty of vertical space (so I can’t see the text above) and just keep on typing. Whatever is in my mind about the topic, that needs to come out.

    For longer papers, I use separate text files.

    After I’ve dumped my brain onto the computer screen, I take a break. When I come back, I usually know what the outline of the paper is. The introduction comes from the details of what I’ve already written, rather than a schema that I set out beforehand.

    Finally, the benefit of using LaTeX: after writing in plain text, I see a draft in professional-looking typeset text. How fancy my paper looks now! It’s almost as good as proofreading a printed copy.

    Reading either the printed or the pdflatexed version, it’s easier to think with a different part of my brain that’s not tired. That’s how I spot where sections need to be bridged.

  16. Mimi MacM says:

    It may sound silly to ask, but I always had problem with “RESEARCHING” itself, not organising. When you are researching to write a paper on IR or political science topic, how do you get your resources? I struggle navigating through Jstor or other databases as there are overwhelmingly large search results. I end up using GoogleScholar and this result in getting the most popular information = not an original paper lacking in-depth analysis. How do I find good peer-reviewed journal articles that is relevant to my topic?

    It is especially hard when I dont have much access to bookss in english as i am on an exchange program!
    Please help me :'(

    1. Ryan says:

      Good question! I’ve had similar problems too, and the best I’ve ever found has been Google Scholar as well. Other than the “works citing this paper” trick, I’ve never done well with researching.

  17. Jonathan beams says:

    This has many similarities to how we write complex computer programs… Stubbing function calls, then fleshing out details as needed. :)

  18. Jonathan beams says:

    And don’t be afraid to refactor. I love this post, because it’s exactly how I wrote up my masters thesis in CS despite the fact I thought I was breaking the rules at the time. You can reorganize your thoughts easily on a word processor or expand a topic as its developed and you realize it may fit better somewhere else… Don’t be afraid to clip, move, and rewrite passages and don’t nit pick. Save the transition work and grammar/flow for mop up time. Differentiate between ‘mop up’ time when you are less inspired and time spent at a higher level working on overall structure or ideas, which is more creative.
    Don’t delete material… Push it off into a separate file for reuse if needed, but plan to generate more material than you will use at the beginning, so you can cut out things that don’t work without heartbreak.

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