Project Outlining

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Outlining is an important step in the writing process. Taking the time to plan out content before committing to a polished draft helps to focus attention on structure by revealing how ideas are organized and connected, and potentially exposing gaps in logic. An outline lays out the core structure of our writing, which makes connections and disconnections easier to identify and fix. Once we see our ideas presented in a complete document with chapters and sections, headings and subheadings, and complete paragraphs it can feel much more difficult to play with structure in this way. Given the importance of clarity in your thesis, outlining each section before committing your ideas to a final draft is key.  

The activities below will guide you to… 

  • Use an outlining approach to identify missing information and resolve gaps in logic.  
  • Build flow by identifying the relationship between consecutive ideas.   
  • Play with ordering and reordering the claims that constitute the main rationale and objectives for your thesis. 

Important Concepts

This module will walk you through a stepwise process to build structure using some of the documents that you have produced in other modules. As you undertake that process there are a few things to keep in mind.  

First, an outline is not the same as a series of rough notes. This module encourages you to use bullets to breakdown the component ideas of chunks of text, which correspond to the paragraphs of your document. Paragraphs by definition cover a single topic. This process of chunking related ideas requires you to build in connections, unlike rough notes that may follow no particular order and have no clear connections.  

Second, headings and subheadings provide important visual and structural cues for both you and your reader. Integrating these during the outlining process will help make your structure explicit. 

 Third, building flow in writing is a learnable skill, not an art. The words in the table below can help us to build in this flow by signaling relationships and guiding the reader through our logic. Inserting these words during the outlining stage saves time on revision by helping to produce coherent and logical writing from the start. 

Relationship:Example Phrases:
Additionand, in addition, then, furthermore, finally
Contrastbut, however, on the other hand, instead
Summationin conclusion
Exemplificationfor example
Causalso, thus, therefore

Suggested Activity – Building Structure 

Estimated time2 hours 

  1. (Optional) Various approaches to storyboarding and outlining a research product exist and tend to serve similar purposes: to distill ideas/topics down into more manageable chunks that can be ordered, reordered or reformulated to support different arguments more effectively. Also storyboarding can help to visualize the argumentative structure—the claim supported by evidence. Take some time to explore rationales and methods for storyboarding a research project, such as those examined in Resource 1. 
  2. In the Designing Arguments module, you produced a general structure for your thesis rationale, using the mapping claims worksheet to move from the big picture to your project specific work. In the Formulating Project Goals module, you generated a list of your objectives, sub-objectives, sub-steps, milestones and deliverables. Merge these two documents into a single file; you should be left with a series of bullets, some of which are organized under titles from the rationale worksheet. Using the merged document as your starting point, you can build explicit structure and improve flow by following these steps:   
    1. Read over the document once and insert titles where appropriate. Read a second time and check for the accuracy and informativeness of these titles. Are your titles generic, or do they signal the content for each section? In your rationale section you may even choose to replace subheadings with claims-based statements, using the bullets that follow to support and/or explain that claim. 
    2. Look for missing information. Specifically: 
      1. Are parts of your story missing?  
      2. Is your research gap identifiable?  
      3. Have you explained the significance/importance of your rationale?  
      4. Is the applicability of your research in response to the gap clear?  
      5. Have you described why a particular technology or approach was selected?  
      6. Are there logical steps that you are relying on your reader to fill in?  
      7. Do your aims and objectives explicitly address the gap that you have identified? Have you incorporated key words or sub-headings to make the connections between the gap and your aims clear? 
    3. Insert additional bullets and/or subsections to cover missing information.  
    4. Create flow. Is the relationship between each bullet and the previous clear, or is there a need for explicit wording to develop or strengthen a specific relationship between ideas? Use the table above to select words that will signal these relationships. 
    5. Walk away. Take a break from your document for a few days and come back with a fresh set of eyes. Is your document easy to navigate, with the purpose of each section signalled by a topic sentence (still in bulleted form)? Is the overall message of your document clear and persuasive? Is information introduced in a logical order? Could you follow your document without requiring additional explanation?
    6. When you’re ready, pass it on. Ask a peer who is not overly familiar with your research to take a look. Have them explain to you what they think your project is about in a few minutes. How well did they understand your document? Explain the project to them more and have them tell you what questions they had reading the document and information or connections you might be missing? Incorporate their feedback. 
    7. You should now have a complete document that can easily be adapted into polished form by eliminating the bulleted structure and adapting the chunks of text into paragraphs, subsections and sections.  

Things to Think About… 

  • Look at the introduction structure of 3 or 4 more papers from your field and try to dissect the function of each sentence to identify the "formula" for writing specific to your field. Make sure you are looking at strong papers from well-respected groups in good journals to ensure the writing is high quality. 


Building Structure
1 Overview of storyboarding and its relevance in outlining research projects.