Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Re-Outline to Stay Focused

By Mina Anderson

Normally, it’s best policy to give yourself several days ahead of an essay deadline to compose and edit your writing. This is because spacing out some of the difficult writing steps and giving yourself time to rest allows you to come back to the essay refreshed and re-focused. However, busy schedules (and often procrastination) sometimes lead to long last-minute writing hours at the computer. Procrastination often happens in the first place when we get “stuck” in our writing, which is when we are prone to taking lots of breaks and “walking away” from the assignment. This prolongs the whole writing process. To ensure staying on task, re-outlining your paper can also serve as a short sort of mental break without distracting you from the assignment itself.

Before you begin to write, outline the general structure of your essay. Write down a sentence for your thesis statement and a topic sentence for each of your major paragraphs/arguments. You can then do a skeletal, bullet-point outline of the rest of your paper. Sometime at this point in your writing process, you may also choose to type up the evidence or quotes from other texts in your outline so as to later have them handy. Then you won’t have to use up some of your writing time leafing through articles or papers, giving you more time to focus on the real issue at hand: composing your own argument.

Then, over the course of writing, every time you get stuck and are likely to take a break from writing, re-create your outline. You may find that the structure of your argument in the essay has changed – for instance, maybe you phrased your thesis statement differently in the first draft, or found that in the course of writing you had more to say about a peripheral piece of evidence than you originally anticipated. In cases where the structure of the essay is shaping up to be different from the original outline, alter your outline. Then, when you have finished re-outlining the structure of the essay, you will be able to observe that structure’s “skeletal” body and evaluate its trajectory: is the structure and organization of your essay turning out the way you had originally envisioned? If not, is the new structure more helpful to your argument, or would reverting to the original outline enable you to better explore the essay topic? Which argument points could be collapsed or expanded in order to give you more “wiggle room” to explore your topic more thoroughly or in new directions?

Re-outlining at moments in your writing when you become stuck can allow you to take a mental break of sorts without completely walking away from the essay. It helps keep you focused on the task at hand while also giving you some distance from your writing, so that you might be able to evaluate the essay as a whole and make holistic decisions about where it will be headed next.

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