An Overview of the Formal Outline
A formal essay outline is hierarchical and linear. It depicts the main sections in the essay in their relation to each other and in the order in which they will occur in the essay. Linearity — first this, then this, then this — matches the linearity of the essay form and, thus, an essay is easier to write if an outline of it has been made.
A formal outline should establish the relationships between main points and subordinate points, between subordinate points and details, and between all points and the thesis. Above all, the outline should provide a sketch of the development of the thesis, not just a list of headings. It is vastly more useful if the line of thinking that the essay follows is displayed than if only the ground to be covered is detailed. The outline should reflect the thesis, not just the topic.
Example of a Skeleton or a Formal Outline
The formal outline establishes relations among ideas in two ways: through a numbering scheme and the way points are displayed on the page. Related ideas are grouped together into the main sections or parts of the essay (I and II in the diagram), and within each of these sections, general (A and B) and specific (1 and 2) ideas are recorded. These divisions can be further broken down (a and b; i and ii), although caution should be exercised at this point — too much specificity often only delays the writing of a paper; you need a certain amount of flexibility so that the outline develops and changes as you write.
Note: the above example is only an example; it is important to realize that your essay does not need to have two major sections, the first with one main section or category, the second with two, the first having two specific ideas, the second having two specific ideas for each general section, etc. The point is that your outline reflects how you best think your essay needs to be logically ordered, based on what you have to say.
Your outline could have three major section, or four or five, or maybe only one. The point is to think it through first. Note also, that your essay's outline does not have to be balanced: each major section does not have to be of equal length with equal sub-sections, etc.
Exercise Two: Creating an Outline
Checking the Formal Outline
Get into the habit of looking for three main qualities in outline as you refine it: motion, analysis, and substance. These qualities can be verified by a simple visual check — the look of the outline — and they are more easily seen in a formal outline than in a mind map.
First, motion. Do the main divisions of your thesis move somewhere? You should take mental steps from section to section, not inch your way along.
Second, analysis. If your thesis has three main sections, ask yourself, “If I show my reader that each mini-thesis for each section is supported, will my reader see that my main thesis is supported?” Check within each section in the same way.This helps you see whether the pieces into which you have broken your main thesis are the ones needed to reconstruct the whole. If not, either some pieces belong to another essay, or your thesis needs refining.
Third, substance. Are your assertions backed up by evidence? Look at the level of detail in your outline. Is there sufficient and convincing evidence that backs up your assertions? Without this, you may write a witty, insightful and even elegant essay, but if you do not show your reader how your insights illuminate the material itself, you will not be rewarded for your efforts.
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