18 Preparing to Write: Organizing and Outlines

ORGANIZING

One of the most important—and perhaps the more difficult—parts of writing a good history research paper is deciding what to say and in what order to say it. A good outline can limit a student’s anxiety about writing a big paper as it may help break the writing process down into manageable chunk. A good outline also helps ensure that you’re approaching your argument in a logical way.

How you go about organizing your thoughts and creating an outline, however, depends a good deal on how your brain works best. Effective writers do not all use the same method. But here are few steps to follow to avoid the dreaded blank page (or monitor) and the essay that meanders and never really makes an argument (or repeats elements of the same argument unnecessarily).

Before you begin the outlining process, keep in mind that the basic form of analytical writing usually utilizes the “Rule of Three.”  Simply, there should be at least three key points/pieces of evidence in a piece of writing introduced by a strong clear thesis. As you deliberate about possible thesis statements and debate what points are major elements of your argument and which ones are minor, or supporting, pieces of evidence, keep in mind that your argument will convince your readers when it has at least three supporting points.

STRATEGIES FOR DEVELOPING AN OUTLINE:

Use the terms you found helpful for organizing notes to start your outline:

The words or tags you used to organize your notes can help in a couple of ways. First, for the “brain dump” process described next, these terms can be the first entries. Second, these terms could form the basis of main elements of your outline. Keywords that appear most frequently in your note-taking process could translate into major elements of your outline.

“Dump” the contents of your brain:

    • Before attempting a formal outline, compile a list of all the interesting facts, ideas, concepts, individuals, and events that you’ve uncovered in your research. Keep an open mind, and don’t limit this list to just what you assumed would be the focus of your paper when you wrote your proposal. For example, what were the arguments of the secondary sources you read? What ideas or phrases came up again and again? Who were the main historical actors and what surprises did you encounter in the primary sources they produced (or were produced about them)? Can you construct a rough timeline without looking at your notes? The unofficial term for this compilation is a “brain dump,” because you are recording all the ideas that have occurred to you without regard to whether they are Big and Important Ideas or smaller, secondary points. Write down as much as you can, without worrying where it fits in the paper or even knowing for sure that it does fit in the paper.

Making sense of the results of the “brain dump”

    • The exact format you use for your brain dump exercise depends on the way you learn.
      • Visual learners often benefit from hand-writing the terms around a physical sheet of paper, and then using a spider-web concept map. In such a concept map, once you have all the terms on the page, you draw lines between related items. The terms that have multiple lines coming to or from them are the nodal points that should serve as main elements in your outline. The items that have just one or two connections are minor explanatory points in your formal outline.
      • Natural list-makers think hierarchically (from most to least important) as a matter of course. If you’re a hierarchical thinker, you might think you already know your outline without drawing lines. But before you jump straight to a formal outline, let yourself think creatively. Try creating multiple lists, with perhaps different items and different orders for the compiled “brain dump” terms and phrases. In this process, some items will appear in multiple lists. Once you have several, think through the pros and cons of each one. Choose the best one and convert it into a formal outline.

Here is a detailed description of how to create a concept map from the University of West Florida and here you can find three examples of different types of concept maps.

Mind Maps are another form of concept mapping that uses a visual hierachy with associated information branching out from that concept.

OUTLINE

Just as there’s not one way to organize your thoughts, there’s not a single form of an outline. Some writers do best with heavily detailed outlines, while others need only “bare bones.” Likewise, the necessity of maintaining an accurate outline is also a matter of personal preference. Some writers continually revise their outline as their thinking about their topic evolves with their writing, while others use an outline only to launch their writing and to prevent the intimidation of a blank screen, then abandon it once they’ve begun writing. Still, it’s extraordinarily helpful to make a plan before you begin. Below what you’ll see are some templates that work for a few common types of arguments. You may find one that works for you, perhaps with a bit of adapting.

Option 1: Chronological

Many history essays have a natural chronological focus. Arguments that seek to explain what happened at a place and time, or demonstrate what led up to an event, as well as essays that focus on an individual’s importance, can be organized chronologically.

  • Intro
  • Early phase or antecedents
  • Middle years or main event
  • Later years or impact
  • Conclusion

Option 2: Revision

If your main argument centers on suggesting a correction to a currently accepted explanation of the past—perhaps you want to establish a new periodization, or make a case for an additional influence or outcome to what historians have argued—then you might consider this sort of organization.

  • Intro
  • Current understanding (or the argument against your thesis)
    • Summaries of what several historians have written
  • What understanding should be (or the arguments for your thesis)
    • Argument 1
      • with three examples/supporting points
    • Argument 2
      • with three examples/supporting points
    • Argument 3
      • with three examples/supporting points
  • Conclusion

Option 3: Topical/thematic approach

When your argument does not fall into one of the above traditional formats, you’ll need to uncover the patterns within evidence, and align them into to (at least) 2-3 explanatory aspects. Research that is not following political or military events often is organizes topically. There are several variations on this format, but at its most basic, consider this format.

  • Intro
  • Aspect 1
    • Example 1
    • Example 2
    • Example 3
  • Aspect 2
    • Example 1
    • Example 2
    • Example 3
  • Aspect 3
    • Example 1
    • Example 2
    • Example 3
  • Conclusion

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How History is Made: A Student's Guide to Reading, Writing, and Thinking in the Discipline by Stephanie Cole; Kimberly Breuer; Scott W. Palmer; and Brandon Blakeslee is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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