Planning by Schematic Outlines Structure

A writer’s plan or outline is in some ways like a traveller’s  itinerary. Follow the instructions, and you will produce a well-ordered document, just as the traveller will catch his trains. But the writer’s outline is not really  as strict as a travel plan. It is a set of guidelines rather than a set of rules. It enables you as writer to convert your thoughts fairly smoothly into words, but at the same time it allows you the freedom to make tactical adjustments as you go along. An outline, like the text itself, can go through several drafts.

The first step is just to note down on a sheet of paper every relevant point you can think of. So much mental  energy  gets wasted by the struggle merely to retain in your memory all those ideas buzzing across your consciousness. Once you have jotted them all down, your mind will be free to concentrate on organising them effectively.

The case study below traces the various steps in compiling the plan of a fairly straightforward piece of writing – an office report. For more complicated pieces of writing – such as a college research project, say, or a detailed proposal for a charity drive – arriving at a well-developed plan might take a great deal more time and tinkering. But the principles remain the same:

X . Jot down all the points that occur to you, in random order if necessary. (At this early stage, you may  have not even the vaguest pattern in mind; once you do begin to detect one, you can rearrange all the points when writing them down a second time.)

X . Read them through: this in turn will generate further ideas.

X . Edit them: underline the most important ideas; write a question mark against the dubious ideas; cross out the trivial or irrelevant ideas; link related ideas by means of an arrow.

X . Study them: further connections will become apparent between various distant ideas; common themes will emerge, each embracing  several individual points; finally, a provisional structure will occur to you that will organise all the ideas into a single coherent whole.

X . Redraft your plan to represent this possible structure: a tree diagram usually works best, revealing clearly the relative importance of the various ideas, and the ways in which they relate to one another.

X . Test the structure: Is it neat enough, or are there straggly strings of  unintegrated items? Does it give equal prominence to items of equal importance? Is it perhaps too neat, forcing some item on to a branch of the structure simply because it does not seem to fit anywhere else? If so, try reassembling a few branches using a different arrangement of items.

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