Threading your outline

THE TRICKY TRANSITION from researching a topic to writing about it lies in sketching an outline. Beware of starting off without one. That would be like setting sail without a rudder; you may move, but not where you intend. An outline plots your course from one chapter, section or subtitle to the next, until you reach your destination. Even a short piece like this one is built around a framework—here visualized for the sake of illustration.

(Switching to linear thinking)

Outlines are indispensable for a simple reason. Our fieldwork, reading and analysis take us down multiple paths, and leave us grappling with a constellation of facts and thoughts. Our brain is made to capture this cloud of ideas. However, we communicate information to others by ordering it in simpler fashion. Writing, in particular, is strictly linear: It follows a sequence that goes only one way—forward. (Even novels that jump around chronologically do so in a string of episodes neatly lined up.)

An essential condition for building an outline is to leave aside all the material you accrued while doing your research. Reference documents and notepads can be warehoused for a while. Indeed, minute details and elaborate concepts are an outline’s mortal enemies. The point is, precisely, to simplify. You must decide how to convey what is most interesting and important to someone who does not know as much as you do. Explaining your work, in everyday words, to friendly ignoramuses will guide you toward an effective structure. If your listeners are captivated, you’ve nailed it.

(The beads for your thread)

Your outline separates and orders the material you have gathered. It bundles it into little packets that you will bind together just as you would thread a necklace. What are those beads made of? It depends, of course, on the nature of your writing and the subject at hand. In a novel, it may be a series of scenes—the components of the story you are telling. When it comes to analytic texts, it tends to be subtopics, facets of the broader issue, different ways of framing it, or stages in the argument you are making.

Importantly, the best outlines are very concrete. Each chapter or section should be labelled in ways that resonate with most readers. The outline doesn’t express the more intricate or abstract aspects of an analysis: It breaks it down into its basic components, which must speak largely for themselves. An outline thus rests on the lower rung of conceptual thinking: broad, descriptive categories that let the reader in on what to expect.

(The thread for your beads)

In parallel to dividing up your subject into modules, you must also start to grasp what brings them all together. The thread in your writing will also be a function of topic and format. Some texts develop a cyclical journey—there and back again. Others hinge on a progression, from familiar to outlandish, from simple to complex, or from bad to worse. A thread may be a quest for answers, as in the case of a paradox or mystery to be resolved.

Identifying what thread applies to your writing helps define what beads compose it, and vice versa. An elusive concept could, for example, be approached through a commonplace metaphor. In this short piece, understanding that an outline looks like a necklace—with beads both detached from each other and held together on a string—helps clarify the structure needed to convey the piece’s core premise. Inevitably, this option made it necessary to discuss the beads, the thread, and then the process of pulling them together.

(The threading process itself)

Building an outline starts by laying out your most significant findings. This can be done in a conversation with a manager or colleague who will listen, ask for clarifications, and ideally write down general themes on a whiteboard. The oral nature of this exercise forces you to simplify and generalize, while stressing what seems most important and explaining briefly why. The key is to leave out facts and analysis, and focus solely on basic descriptive concepts. Retain as many evocative words or short expressions as needed to cover every important facet of your work.

You then want to group these subtopics under (temporary) titles, which will bundle related concepts together and order them logically. As your choice should be opportunistic, ask yourself practical questions: What set of titles leaves nothing out, distributes content evenly, and takes the reader from the most accessible parts of my reasoning to the more challenging ones? Later on, during the writing and editing process, you likely will move things around again, until everything fits in and feels right. Outlines are meant to evolve. You must nonetheless decide on a tentative structure, if only to test how well it functions.

At that point, you may plunge back into all your material, to fish out your supporting evidence, figures, quotes, illustrations and so on. Place them in your preliminary outline, before you start drafting. This will help you articulate what each chapter or section will contain, exactly, and remedy problems as they surface. A subdivision bulging with notes must be split. An empty one will be cut. An illogical sequence can be adjusted. In Word or equivalent software, use the headings function and the navigation pane, to fly from one title or subtitle to another, to add a bit here or move something elsewhere.


By providing a rail you can hang on to, detailed outlines remove much of the stress of writing. The more time you spend on one, the faster you will draft, the less you will be edited. Although the process may at first seem strenuous, you will also learn, through practice, to structure your texts more instinctively. That’s a few good reasons to invest!

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Illustration credit: Rosmarie Voegtli Counting pearls by Flickr / licensed by CC. 

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