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On Outlines

The outline of a research paper (or a brief, or a letter, or memo, or any other form of writing or communication) should be a rough draft of the argument (the argument that you have so far; the argument will likely change as research continues), in the sense that it is a rough draft of the structure, not a rough draft of the text.

Imagine a paper that has a total of five large sections.  Your paper may have more than that.  But five will do for the following quick overview.

Section I is the Introduction.  Section V is the Conclusion.  Sections II, III, and IV are the body of the paper, which is where the research and analysis go.

Imagine that Section I and V are each expected to have three paragraphs.  In practice, they may have more or fewer, but three will do for this purpose.

Imagine that Sections II, III, and IV are each expected to have 10 paragraphs.  Again, that is just for the current example.  Because of the large number of paragraphs, let’s assume that each of those sections has a Part A (five paragraphs) and a Part B (five paragraphs).

Now, to the outline.

Step 1 of the outline is to lay out headings:  I, II, III, IV, and V.  Each of those headings is accompanied by one sentence which describes the content of that section.  For the Introduction, the sentence is not “This is the introduction.”  For the Introduction, the sentence is “This paper is about X, and how close examination of X tells us Y.”  That doesn’t have to be a “thesis.”  Despite the advice in my page on writing papers, I’m not big on classic “theses.”  A “thesis” is the content of the paper distilled into a relatively brief, clear package. Effective distilling is the goal; a “thesis” as such is not the goal. The reader (me) just wants to know what the paper is about.

Each of the big Section headings should be an equivalent overview sentence relative to the expected content of that Section.  For the Conclusion, the big sentence is “This paper has reviewed X, and it shows us Y in the following respects.”

Once you’re done with that step, you should have five sentences.  If I were to read those five sentences, and only those five sentences, then they should tell me the story of your paper, in very general terms.  Each sentence needs to be a complete sentence, not a bullet point.  Each sentence should have a logical relationship to its predecessor (except the Introduction) and to the following sentence (except the Conclusion).  There should be a beginning, middle, and end to the story of your paper.

For example, the overview single sentence for Section II might be “I asked the following question [spell it out], because the answer to that question explains something important about the world [spell that out].” The overview single sentence for Section III might be “I researched my question by [explain what you did].” The overview single sentence for Section IV might be “Based on my research, the answer to my question is [spell that out].”

Next, within each section, if there is a Part A and Part B (for each of Sections II, III, and IV), repeat the process.  Each Part should have a beginning sentence that explains the point of that Part.  It should relate to the macro (heading) sentence for that Section in a logical way.  It should also relate to the sentence that comes next, if it’s Part A and will be followed by Part B.

Again, you should have a number of sentences in order.  In logical sequence, they should still tell the overall story of the paper, but now with added detail, because you’ve added key sentences leading off Part A and Part B within each of Sections II, III, and IV.

Now move to the paragraph level.  Within the Introduction and Conclusion, you have three paragraphs.  Each paragraph has a topic sentence.  Making sure that the paragraphs are in logical order, write the topic sentence for each paragraph (what that paragraph is about) into your outline, as 1), 2), and 3).  Do the same for the five paragraphs in II.A and II.B, and so on for III and IV.

(A topic sentence is a first sentence of a paragraph, and that sentence should express the main idea of the paragraph. Each paragraph should have one idea, and each idea should, presumptively at least, be limited to a single paragraph.)

Again, if I read all of these topic sentences in order, and only those sentences, I should be able to understand the logical structure of the paper, from beginning to end.  I don’t have all of the detail, because the detailed contents of each paragraph are missing. And you may change the structure and the content (and the writing of the topic sentences) later, if your research suggests that you should.

That’s the outline.  As you can tell, the purpose of all of this is to make each person do some hard thinking in advance about what the logical argument of the paper actually is, and to give me the opportunity to make specific suggestions about it.  Bullet points don’t require that writers do any work, and they don’t tell me anything helpful about what the paper is about.

Done well, the outline should make the actual writing significantly easier, later.

A postscript on paragraph structure:

The following is a piece of advice about how to write a compelling paragraph of legal analysis. This applies to letters, memos, emails, briefs, and research papers. And it is the one truly compelling piece of writing advice that I took away from my own career as a practicing lawyer. I learned this in the Spring of 1991 from an expert lawyer/writer/author — the person who later created WordRake — and I’ve never forgotten it.

For a given paragraph, a topic sentence should be a declaration of the one key point that the paragraph makes. Perhaps that point is: “The law is X.” Or: “The facts are Y.” Or: “Applying the law to the facts as we know them, the plaintiff has met its burden of proof as to the first essential element of the plaintiff’s claim.” In short, start by picking out the key point of the paragraph.

Next – and here’s the magic principle that should make you think hard about how you write – before you write the next sentence, ask yourself: why? Sentence 2 of that paragraph should answer the question, “why?” that you’ve asked about sentence 1. Write out sentence 2. Then ask yourself — again — why? Answering “why?” with respect to sentence 2, write out sentence 3. Repeat and repeat until you’ve conclusively answered “why?” at every stage, for every sentence, in order.

Then, take one final step. Ask yourself: so what? The answer to “so what?” is the final sentence of the paragraph. If you step back, you’ll find that your paragraph has a compelling “beginning, middle, and end” logic.

Then, move on to the next paragraph, which begins with the next point that you want and need to make in order to advance your argument.

Obviously, this is simplistic and mechanistic, so don’t adhere to it slavishly. Knowing about the technique, and knowing how to use the technique (and eventually, knowing when to depart from the technique) will make you a much better writer; using the technique isn’t easy, but it pays off over time. Masters of the craft of writing can write elegantly about their own struggles with structure.

Last updated: December 2022