Monday Master Class: How to Use a Flat Outline to Write Outstanding Papers, FastNovember 5th, 2007 · 32 comments
The Outline Orthodoxy
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:
- Rothko Chapel in Houston
- Letter to Philip Johnson proposing idea
- 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, allof 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:
- Write much more efficiently, without the delay of consulting sources.
- 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.
- Avoid the pain of facing a blank screen. The writing task is now one of transformation, not creation, which is much easier to tackle.
To summarize the advice in this post:
- Don’t build a hierarchical outline. Instead, list the topics you want to tackle in the order you want to tackle.
- Revisit the library to find sources for the topics that still need support.
- Dump all relevant quotes from your sources under the topics.
- 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…
If you’re a curious person who always wants to everything about anything, then you’ll love writing research papers. As a writer who constantly works on different forms of content and different niches, I spend most of my time researching. In fact, that’s my favorite part of the entire process. I love that feeling I get when I research, learn more, find what I need, and use it to create unique content. As you’ve already figured by its name, a research paper requires a lot of curiosity and “detective work” as I like to call it. You can easily picture yourself as a detective (or even a journalist) who’s working on same big case or story.
Writing research paper for the very first time can be overwhelming, you’re nervous because you don’t want to make mistakes. Or maybe you’ve already worked on this type of paper before, but you want to know how to improve. I am going to help writing papers you out, regardless of your experience, by providing useful info and tips for writing a high-quality work. Let’s see how to write introduction and outline for a research paper (it’s easier than you think).
Research paper introduction
Research papers usually discuss serious topic or ideas, or the ones that are subjected to numerous debates. A writer i.e. you, has to a thorough research, find out as much as possible and combine previous and current research data on the topic. The paper should, also, include conflicting ideas or attitudes.
Let’s say your research paper is about global warming, besides info (previous and current studies and such) about this topic, it’s useful to write about two opposing views or mention that some people believe it is a hoax. That way, you are covering both sides of the issue and show how unbiased you are.
The research paper does not deal with writer’s opinion, it is not your job to write what you think about the subject and support your claim with evidence. Instead, it deals with facts!
You have probably dealt with this problem before – you want to start writing, but you can’t think of anything, ideas vanished entirely, and you don’t know how to formulate the introduction. That is a common concern, even among those who believe that introductions aren’t important in the first place.
The high-quality paper is the one wherein all parts, from the introduction to a conclusion, are well-structured. There are no “less important” parts of the text. So, how to create an introduction for a research paper?
Elements of the introduction
In order to create a bulletproof introduction, you should stick to the basic formula that consists of the following:
- Hook – the very beginning of your introduction, which is why it should be interesting in order to grab a reader’s attention. This is, basically, where readers already make the very first impression of your work and as you know, first impressions are everything. The hook for a research paper is typically longer than in a basic essay. The typical research paper is longer than some essay, which is why it needs a longer intro. To create the hook, you can use anecdotes, statistics, questions, quotes, anything you see fit for your topic.
- Research question – in most cases you’ll get the research question i.e. what exactly to research and create your paper about, but in other instances, you’ll have to do it on your own. Generally, research question should be concise, on the point, and inform the reader what to expect throughout your work.
- Thesis statement – it accounts for the last sentence or two of the introduction. The thesis statement in a research paper is equally important to those in ordinary essays. Not only they provide additional information to the reader, but also help you stay focused and avoid straying away from your topic. The thesis statement is, actually, an answer to the research question, so make sure it’s a good, constructive one.
Example: The history of medieval times in Europe and the Middle East was primarily characterized by armed conflict between Christians and Muslims. Christians called these conflicts the Crusades because they were fighting under the sign of the cross to save the holy lands of the Bible from being desecrated by non-Christians. However, the true reason for fighting for these lands was less than holy. What was the real reason behind Crusades? The underlying cause for Crusades was mainly a desire for economic gain that prompted the Christian leaders to send soldiers to fight in the Holy Land and efforts from the Church to, still, remain the biggest and undisputable authority.
Purple – hook
Blue – research question
Red – thesis statement
Whenever having to write a research introduction, keep in mind the diagram you see below.
Tips for introduction
Here are some useful things to consider when writing a research paper introduction:
- Although introductions of research papers can be somewhat longer than in regular essays, you should still try to keep it short. Don’t drag the introduction and take up half of a page or something. Rambling, lengthy introductions will quickly lose your reader’s interest. Plus, they are a sign of an unorganized thought
- Introduction isn’t a summarized version of the entire paper, it briefly introduces your work
- Never choose a thesis statement you can’t support with evidence
- Based on your research, include points or subtopics that you will delve into in the body of the paper
- Subtopics should be associated with the main subject and work to strengthen the importance and value of your thesis statement
- When writing the first draft, you can save the introduction for last (if you find it easier that way). By the time you finish the body and conclusion, you’ll get inspired and know what to include in the introductory part of your paper.
- Take a notebook and write down different ideas to make an interesting, yet professional introduction. Separate good ideas from the bad ones, think of your research question and thesis statement. Now, connect those ideas with sentences
- Be precise, your introductions should be precise and specific and discuss only the idea you’ve researched and plan to elaborate further, don’t stray away from the topic and write about stuff that you won’t even mention in the body.
Research paper outline
Now that you know how to start your research paper, you’re probably wondering how to keep going. Be sure that you have found a worthy research paper topic before passing to the next level. Just like with essays, the outline is everything. It’s a formula you use to write about any topic and still get a well-structured paper that your professor will love.
The general outline for research paper consists of the following:
- Introduction (explained above)
- Body – the central part of the paper and includes context or general information about the subject, existing arguments, detailed research. Here you can also include your argument, but only if a professor specifies it when sending out assignments. As mentioned above, research papers are usually concerned with facts, not opinions
- Conclusion – summary of main points, why the subject matters
Example: Here’s how the general outline would look if were writing about Shakespeare:
- Body – Shakespeare’s early life, marriage, works, later years
- Early life, family, marriage to Anne Hathaway, references to his marriage in poems he wrote
- Shakespeare’s works: tragedies, comedies, histories, sonnets, other poems
- Later years: last two plays, retired to Stratford, death, burial, epitaph on this tombstone
It is important to bear in mind that every new idea, in this case, an aspect of Shakespeare’s life and work, requires a separate paragraph.
To simplify, use the following diagram when you have to work on a research paper.
The purpose of a research paper outline is to help you think through your topic carefully and organize it logically before the writing process commences. Since I’ve already shown how to write the introduction, it’s time to give a few pointers for the body and conclusion of your work. So, here we go:
- Assume that your reader isn’t familiar with the topic and start with basic info first. Imagine you’re reading a paper for a five-year-old. Give background, historical context, etc. You don’t have to go into the tiniest details, mentioning something useful, memorable will do the trick too
- It’s useful to research and include opinions of other, respected historical figures about your topic. For example, what other authors had to say about Shakespeare
- Don’t forget about conflicting views e.g. some people didn’t like Shakespeare and thought he was a fraud, it’s useful to mention that as well. Regardless of the topic, there are always pro- and anti- opinions, mention both sides
- Only include information you can support with reliable and trustworthy evidence. Don’t use Wikipedia, blogs and such, go for journals, books, respected websites, it all depends on the topic of course
- Give credit where credit is due, don’t forget to cite your sources
- The overall tone of your paper should be formal, don’t be scared to demonstrate your vast vocabulary skills
- Avoid wordiness, sentences should be concise. Every word you use should only contribute to the overall meaning of a sentence. Don’t use “fluff” just meet the word count
- When writing conclusions, briefly mention the most important arguments or research, explain the importance of the subject and what we can learn from it.
Writing a research paper may seem like a mission impossible if you’ve never had the opportunity to work on such an assignment. But, it doesn’t have to be stressful. Always make sure you follow an outline and you’ll stay on the right track. Picture yourself as a detective or journalist who’s in the search for the truth. Why don’t you try writing your own paper about Shakespeare, now? Good luck!