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On Document Outlines: My Great Debate

The standard outline format shown on a printed page

Outline a document to perfect its structure.

I’ve talked a lot about my dad around here (and will again). Maybe I should just add him to my About page….

Anyway, he put himself through college on a debate scholarship, and he felt like the lessons learned from that program helped him in a lot more ways than just paying for his education. He learned how to win arguments, but more than that he learned how to really understand what someone else was saying, and how to help other people understand ideas he wanted to communicate.

He learned how to critically examine an idea or belief, to consider it from every angle and subject it to the rigorous demands of pure logic. He learned to think on his feet, to manage the stresses of performance and competition, to memorize and research and take notes like a professional.

I know all this, because he and I argued the topic again and again and again when I was in high school and he insisted that I enroll in at least one semester of debate.

I was arguing, in the first place, because I had no interest in public speaking. By my Freshman year I’d already dedicated my life to writing, and I liked writing. I liked having time to build a well-worded argument, to dictate the shape and pace of the conversation, to review my errors and fix my mistakes before sharing them with the world.

Dad’s philosophy was always that education is all about stretching beyond your comfort zone, and he won that debate (of course). And, of course, he was right. I got better at sound logic, strong research, and quick thinking. I picked up all those skills he’d mentioned — learned them so deeply that I never really had to try again — and among them one he’d never brought up. I learned how to write an outline.

Boy howdy.

I already knew how to take notes, to sketch an overview, but I didn’t usually “outline” per se. I didn’t even really learn the difference until I got to my first competition. I gave my big speech — carefully and beautifully structured — and then my counterpart on the other team stood up to respond. He took a deep breath, and launched into attack.

“Roman one, you talked about immigration controls, but your case focuses exclusively on emigration…. Big B, your cited source refers to a policy the U. S. has considered, but it has since been rejected…. Number 2 establishes a possible solution but it’s totally at odds with your assumptions in Roman three, big B, number 2, little C.”

I just stared at him, stunned. I didn’t have any big Bs or little Cs. I didn’t know what he was talking about!

Visualizing Underlying Structure

Of course, he was referring to the standard outline format, and I’ll get into that Tuesday. Outside of debate, though, nobody really uses the outline format as a reference structure (calling out points by their labels). That means you don’t need to worry too much about getting yours perfect.

The value of a well-made outline, though, is keeping you on topic. An outline isn’t just a summary, it’s a structure, a map of the relationships between ideas. Come back tomorrow, and I’ll help you understand what a document outline really does for you (and why it’s worth the effort).

Photo credit Julie V. Photography.

6 Responses to “On Document Outlines: My Great Debate”

  1. Added you to me feed reader so I don’t miss tomorrow because I could use some help with an outline. I’ve never written an outline in my entire life 😳

    • Aaron Pogue says:

      Awesome, Eleanor! I hope it helps (and definitely let me know, either way).

      And thanks for all the comments. It’s great hearing from you!

  2. I don’t think I ever realized how much of an outline geek I was…until talking to other writers and creative types. Yeah, I’m highly creative, but very highly organized as well. Despite what you might think, those two opposite sides of my personality actually get along quite well, rather than fighting for dominance. 🙂 It’s a partnership.

    I learned to outline before highschool. I’m sure of it. (Everyone doesn’t?) What do I know, I was homeschooled. 🙂

    But the extent of my geekiness definately comes into play when packing for a vacation (VACATION, mind you) and I make a packing list in outline form. Yeah. (Wait, isn’t that fun for everyone?) I love lists too.

    I’m excited to hear what you have to say about outlines this week. It would be awesome to learn more tips and tricks.

  3. […] all the bits link together to make sense at the end (I think those were about his words!) but the structure isn’t normal. (But hey, who wants to be normal? Actually, part of me does. If I’m being honest. But […]

  4. Dave Doolin says:

    I’ve gotten pretty good at winging it over the last year or so.

    Seriously considering amping up my technical writing, and for that I will need an outline.

    Actually, that’s not entirely true: I do outline. Since I use LaTeX as a typesetting system, I generally lay in a set of sections, subsections and paragraph intros before I really dig into writing.

    I just don’t outline much for blog posts. No time for it. People in my space routinely write 5 articles in 2 hours, all of which get sent off as guest posts to drive traffic via backlinks. I guess this means my strategy here is two-fold: some writing will need to be accurately outlined, other will need to be cranked out fast!

  5. […] all the bits link together to make sense at the end (I think those were about his words!) but the structure isn’t normal. (But hey, who wants to be normal? Actually, part of me does. If I’m being honest. But […]