The Art of the Outline

In his 1881 autobiography, Charles Darwin wrote:

With my large books I spend a good deal of time over the general arrangements of the matter. I first make the rudest outline in two or three pages, and then a large one in several pages, a few words or one word standing for a whole discussion or series of facts. Each one of these headings is again enlarged and often transferred before I begin to write in extenso.

Let us illustrate Darwin's approach with a concrete example. Let us say that we wish to write an essay about insight in animals. We begin by reading a great deal on this subject, so that we can talk about it authoritatively and intelligently. At some point, we begin to feel knowledgeable enough to write a senior-level essay. Now, if we just jot down any thought that occurs to us, what we write might or might not make sense to us, but it will make little sense to anyone else--there is no sense without organization.

That is, essays require some structuring. Such structuring makes it easy for the reader to follow the line of argument. It also forces the writer to stick to the point, instead of rambling all over the place. So our general outline might look like this:

Tentative Outline of an Essay: "Insight in Animals"

I. What is insight?

II. Does it make sense to refer to animals as insightful?

III. Insight among insects, with special emphasis on honey bees

1. Does it exist?

2. A few examples

IV. Insight in birds, with special emphasis on ravens

V. Insight among higher mammals

1. Elephants

2. Cetaceans

3. Orangutans and gorillas

VI. Insight in chimpanzees:

1. Wolfgang Kohler's celebrated experiments

2. Use of language

3. Problem solving

4. Social interactions

5. Self-awareness

VII. The case against insight

1. Bees

2. Ravens

3. Higher mammals

4. Chimpanzees

5. Theoretical considerations

VII. Summary, conclusion, parting words

To be sure, this is a tentative outline. As we continue reading, and as we begin to write, we might feel the need to rearrange, add, or delete items; write an outline on a related topic; or choose an altogether new topic. But tentative as it is, this outline allows us, until further changes are indicated, to organize our thoughts and to stick to one point at a time. In this case, it also allows us to progress in a logical manner. The first topic, for example, tries to resolve the problem of what we mean by insight. By resolving this definitional matter, we now can tell the reader and ourselves the kind of issues that our essay will (and will not) discuss. This outline sensibly progresses from lower to higher animals. The good outline also helps direct our library search for additional information. And, regardless of what your viewpoint is, a good outline will, before reaching a conclusion, make room for alternative viewpoints, especially when dealing with a controversial and difficult subject.

The most important attribute you can bring to this early part of your project is flexibility.   At a certain point in your journey, you might discover that the topic you chose is just too vast.  You might decide, for instance, that Insight in Animals is too vast a subject (indeed, it is!), and choose to hone in on just one animal.  Or, as you go along you might have a question forming in the back of your mind to which no one has an answer.   What if this question can be answered by your own Labrador Retriever Muffy?   What if you conduct some experiments on said Muffy and include them in your essay?

Readers don't usually notice that most essays progress from one topic to another, because in a good piece of writing everything hangs together naturally. But a careful examination reveals that well-written essays indeed adhere to an outline.


Back to Senior Essay, Main Page