I remember that my teachers always told me to make an outline when I started a big writing project. I rarely did. I always turned in an outline, don’t get me wrong; not doing an assignment was not an option at home or at school. I always did my outline at the end, however. (Yes, I got A’s. And now I am paid for my writing – except for this blog.)
The reason I did my outline at the end was because, for me, writing was a process of discovering what I thought. As I wrote I mulled over and over the material and my ideas matured. I revised and revised until I felt the strength and logic and power in my arguments. When I was done, the writing had shape and it fell nicely into an outline.
Today that process has a name: The Writing Process. It has been discovered and has parts and stages from pre-writing (not writing, this pre-?) through revision.
I am not against outlines; I have even decided on my own to make them and use them in professional and technical writing. In those cases, I need an outline because I am organizing and giving structure to the ideas of other people, not my own.
There are many linear thinkers who are powerful and effective writers who have different processes for writing their own ideas than I do. For them, outlines are natural. In my view, we each have natural wiring when it comes to working through ideas.
Students often have no process yet, so as a teacher I always start by offering them the linear, logical path of notecards and outlines. I just don’t act horrified when I find out they secretly have another process.
Where inkwells meet keystrokes on this issue is that with modern word processing software, there is a “navigation pane” or “document map” feature on most of them that helps student see their outline developing. This technological tool can help them make an outline in the first place, but because it is not done with ink pens on lined paper, they can easily move the parts around as they learn through their research. I like to show these features to students so they can see several ways to accomplish the goals of writing.
Folks like me would not have had to cheat if we had had these in 1970’s.