First of all, I’d like to dedicate this blog post to Mrs. Barbara Bender who taught my high school sophomore year American Literature class. It wasn’t that the reading selections were all that riveting, or that we had any kind of “Oh, Captain, my captain,” kind of moments. What made the class so pivotal in my formation as a writer is the fact Mrs. Bender made us write papers…and we hated it.
Why? Because we had to submit an OUTLINE for every single paper, and the points had to match up. The outline had to create and support a logical argument supported by evidence from start-to-finish. It was a pain in the butt. But…wouldn’t you know it, writing outlines before writing papers soon became a habit. Once I mastered how to outline an academic paper, it was like I was unstoppable.
Yes, I know. This sounds like the Passion of the Nerd. In reality though, it’s more like the Redemption of the Procrastinator. Becoming a master outliner helped me write papers faster and get better grades every time.
(No, seriously, I spent an entire semester pulling procrastination punishment all-nighters every Monday night cranking out three-page papers for my anthropology of Papua New Guinea class and got an ‘A’ on every single one…all because I could outline!)
Whether its academic papers or blog posts, creating an outline is a skill that every writer needs, and unconsciously, every reader appreciates. And today, I’m going to share with you Mrs. Bender’s simple-but-magical outlining tips and tricks from the introduction, to the middle, to the end..
Just like in fiction, a good blog post or academic paper starts with a catchy opening. It can be challenging, evocative, shocking, or revelatory.
Then, we start to circle the topic in general, sharing reasons it is interesting, relevant, worthwhile, etc. A good technique is: ‘within, without, backward, forward.’ We address:
- Within: Why a topic is important from within the field;
- Without: In relation to society in general
- Backward: In the context of the past;
- Forward: Its potential impact going forward.
THE THESIS STATEMENT COMETH. Just like a logline for a story, the thesis statement for a paper or a blog is the BURNING REASON we are writing this. It’s the single argument that everything else—no matter how many thousands of words—supports.
The Plan of Attack: Right after the thesis statement come the three main points that will support our argument. It’s the old “Tell ’em what you’re gonna tell ’em,” schtick. Here’s an example of outlining an introduction.
Now, we’re into the thick of things. We’re sligning facts and logic right and left, maybe even footnoting stuff (Heaven forbid!). But, without a coherent structure, all those facts are going to end up overwhelming us and the reader. Think “I Love Lucy” and the chocolate factory conveyor belt.
Whether it’s fiction or blogs or papers, the middle is always the longest and hardest part. Luckily, there’s a trick to setting up this section of the outline, from the main point down to the individual paragraphs. Okay, maybe the trick is more like the bastard child of an illicit affair between a formula and a checklist, but it’s still one of God’s creatures, and I love it.I call it ‘The Telescoping Rule of Three.’
Catchy, non? Yet, it is an accurate description of both the flexibility and order we need for the middle of papers of all lengths. We need the limit of three to help us focus our high-level arguments. But, at the same time, we need the open-ended ability to drill way, way down into details. We can’t lose ourselves in irrelevant minutiae if we stick to The Telescoping Rule of Three. Even if we do, the structure will guide us safely back.
The Telescoping Rule of Three
The rule starts with the having a plan of attack with three main points that support the thesis statement. This isn’t to say that there are more arguments we could make to support the thesis. It’s simply that these are three points we are choosing to illustrate because we believe they are a relevant, cohesive angle.
Once we are done with the introduction, we tackle each point as its own section. We turn it into a mini-paper, complete with its own introduction with a thesis and plan of attack. From there, we illustrate each of the supporting points with three points…aaaaand you begin to see how this rule ‘telescopes’ to expand for a dissertation or contract for a 1500-word paper. It’s easiest explain this with a graphic.
‘Three’ is not by any means a hard and fast limit. Think of it more like a boogie board in the ocean. It can help us surf the waves with that rush of speed and ease. But, it can also help us stay afloat when we get swamped by that unexpected swell..and get salt water up our noses like a gratuitous neti pot accident that makes us cough and swallow some of the saltwater while snotting the rest of it back out into the ocean.
Because it’s all starting to come full circle now…I know you know what’s coming. The fact that writing a paragraph starts with an introductory sentence that states the point of the paragraph. The fact that there are three sentences that support that point. The fact that there is a concluding sentence that segues into the next paragraph. It’s getting kinda trippy, amiright?
The Conclusion (in more ways than one)
By the point, it should be 4:00 a.m., and the caffeine shakes should just be starting to kick in.In the prehistoric times when I was in college, we didn’t have Red Bull. Instead, I drank cold, black coffee from the mini coffeemaker in my room. That’ll wake you up. And put hair on your chest.
Until I figured out the secret to writing a conclusion, I struggled with this part of a paper. I would even go so far as to shower and fold my laundry instead of writing this bit. I know, right? However, when I discovered that a conclusion is just an introduction in reverse, it was like the clouds parted and heavenly hosts appeared bearing white chocolate mocha lattes (no whipped cream). This is the “Tell ’em what you told ’em” part of a paper. I used to feel it was repetitive, but then I realized it was okay. That’s the point of the conclusion. We have to remind the reader why the topic is important and affirm the fact that we proved the bejeezus out of our argument.
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