Beginning an Outline Help (page 2)
Beginning an Outline
Learning to write an outline is the most helpful process you can complete before beginning to write your paper. Although it may seem difficult, if you have compiled your note cards, you are already well on your way towards completing your first outline. This lesson will show you how to construct a preliminary outline from your note cards, and use it as a guide for writing and thinking about the first draft of your paper.
After spending time in the library and taking down a great deal of important information, you are now ready to begin. Note cards are a wonderful way to store and record information because they are both easy to use and handy to arrange. Take your note cards from your holder and begin to arrange and rearrange them like a deck of cards, or lay them flat on a table. Before you even begin to write down anything on a sheet of paper, first group your note cards in the following patterns. Look at each of the arrangements and study them for a few moments before collecting them all back together again. For instance, you can arrange your cards in stacks according to:
- Each book that you have used
- Topic or subject heading
- Chronological order: beginning, middle, and end
Studying Your Note Cards
Looking at your note card arrangements is both fun and instructive, and is a little bit like piecing together a puzzle. Since each note card is a valuable piece of information—an idea, or a portion of a book—the way they are distributed can tell you a great deal about how you might structure and write your paper. For instance, by arranging your note cards by book or source, you can easily tell:
- What source has been the most valuable for you
- Where the "bulk" of the evidence for your paper is stored
If a particular book has provided you with 50 note cards and another book has only yielded five note cards, it is easy to guess that the first book or first pile contains a great deal of valuable information about your topic. You can also assume that a lot of material for your paper will come from that stack or source. After making a note of this and using a visible organizational system to see which books have been the most helpful, you can now arrange your note cards according to another method—by subject heading. Perhaps you have read several books that mentioned President John F. Kennedy's brother, Robert, and how he was instrumental in the president's decisions. Arrange your note cards now by subject heading only—regardless of where you got your information. You may have a few books mixed together, but the cards will be arranged by topic. Study your topic headings and ask yourself:
- Which topic headings have the most material?
- Are there only a few basic topic headings that most of the note cards fall under or are there many more topic headings?
- Are there some topic headings that aren't mentioned at all but should be?
Finally, after you have studied these piles and answered these questions for yourself, group your note cards into a third sample arrangement. Try to sort through all of them now, regardless of the source of the material, or their topic headings, and put together three basic stacks by asking yourself:
- Which note cards might be useful or important at the beginning of my paper?
- Which note cards might be useful or important in the middle of my paper?
- Which note cards do I need at the end of my paper for my conclusion?
Remember, note cards are easy to arrange and rearrange. All the material that you need is right there in front of you, so that you don't have to worry about losing anything or having to shuffle and sort through additional papers or notes. Ask yourself which of the arrangements you preferred. What sorting method made it easiest for you to think about the structure of your paper? Maybe it helped just to understand which of your sources was most valuable for you, and therefore you may want to take out that particular book again. On the other hand, by sorting through your cards by topic headings, you maybe got an idea of the three basic topics or subject headings you want to discuss in your paper. Finally, perhaps you preferred the last method and liked to arrange all your sources according to where they might appear in your paper—so that you have a chronological blueprint of your writing. Any of these organizational systems are fine, and doing all three allows you to determine how you might want to organize your paper and get started.
Writing Your Preliminary Outline from Your Note Cards
Decide which of the ordering systems you prefer and get all your note cards arranged accordingly. Go through each of your stacks carefully whether they are grouped by book, topic heading, or chronological order, and now simply go through the stacks, skimming your note cards and sorting them one by one, according to the way that you would like your information to flow. Remember, all your necessary information is already on your note cards. Writing your paper is simply writing down what's on your note cards in your own words and connecting the information together. If you order your note cards and think carefully about their arrangement, you have already completed the rough, or preliminary, outline for your paper.
Studying your note cards and arranging them by different criteria allows you to see, arrange, and rearrange your information before you even begin the actual writing process. Play with your note cards; learn from them. Experiment with them, thinking about different ways you can structure your paper. Once you have decided on an ordering system that you like and that makes sense to you, you already have your preliminary outline right in front of you.
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