The Why and How of Outlining for College Students

College students should outline. There, I said it. I know this isn’t a popular idea, believe me. The problem is that elementary and secondary teachers, bless their souls, have ruined this useful tool by forcing beginning writers to adhere to a formal outline structure that stifles creativity and ultimately negates the benefits of outlining.

Outlines are really just a way to organize our thoughts before we start trying to communicate on paper. It’s a way to get all of our ideas about a topic out of our head and onto paper. It’s a way to organize our thoughts so that we can maneuver them into a meaningful message to our reader. They are something that no one except the writer needs to “approve”…if it works for you, it is “correct.”

Outlines are not meant to be an exact blueprint for your essay. Outlines, like essays, should be living documents that change as your ideas on the topic develop and morph. This development and metamorphosis should not be seen as “failure,” but as a mature way of understanding how writing works. Writing isn’t a linear process, so then, how can outlining be?

If the formal outline makes you cringe, consider using one or more of these ideas to formulate a style of outlining that will work for you.

Mind-mapping is no longer for 4th-graders! Mind-mapping is a legit way to allow your creativity to flow while putting order to it all so that you can coherently communicate your ideas.I think more students would benefit from using this type of an organizational tool. It helps you see relationships between ideas/points/facts. It also helps you visualize which points are major and which are minor ones. In fact, there are now several free mind-mapping sites available to anyone with Internet access.

Informal Outlining
Who says you have to use Roman numerals to create a meaningful outline? Not me! I can do it on a napkin at my local café or on a Word doc using bullet points. This style of outlining includes writing sentences or phrases that encapsulate each point you wish to make about the topic and then listing supporting points under each. From there you can move the points around until you organize the essay in the way that will be most beneficial to your reader.

Zero Drafting
Sometimes you have so many seemingly-random ideas in your head revolving around your writing topic that you can’t even begin to put it all in any type of an order. That is when the zero draft can help! This type of draft, just like any outlining/prewriting, is for your eyes only. It’s not even a 1st draft and no one else will ever know it existed, so there is no pressure. It can be imagined as rumination regurgitation. Everything you have thought about on the topic is just written down in no particular order. Then it is all there for you to go through later to decide what points are related to other ones and how they flow together. Color-coding is helpful in turning the zero draft into organized chaos.

You shouldn’t confuse this with the handouts you colored in kindergarten! Color-coding is a genuine way of organizing your thoughts into different categories so that you can create a plan for communicating your ideas. Use highlighters, colored pencils, crayons, gel pens, whatever. Allow your left and right brains to work together by incorporating this strategy in your outlining efforts.

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