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This little book examines a writing activity that has recently fallen into disrepute.  Outlining has a bad reputation among students, even though many teachers and textbooks still recommend the process.  In part, I would argue, the medium is to blame.  Paper and ink make revision difficult, because one must recopy so much information. But if one uses an electronic outliner, the activity can be very helpful in developing a thoughtful and effective document, particularly one that spans many pages and deals with a complicated subject.

This book takes a historical approach, examining the the way people developed the idea of outlining, from the classical period to the present.  We see that the medium in which people worked strongly shaped their assumptions, ideas, and use of outlines. In developing a theoretical model of outlining as an activity,  then, I argue that a relatively new electronic tool--software that accelerates and transforms the process of outlining--can give us a new perspective from which to engage previous classroom models of writing, recent writing theory, and current practice in the technical writing field.

Outlining Goes Electronic, Jonathan Price, Ablex, 1999.

Table of Contents

Part One: The Situation Today

1. A Little Context

  • The Main Idea: How Going Electronic Deepens our Understanding of Outlining
  • Situating the Outline in Theory
  • Situating Electronic OUtlijning in the Spectrum of Collaborative Work

2. How Electronic Outlining Helps Writers Turn Structuring into a Continuous Process

  • What Outlining Software Does
  • Expanding the Organizing Process
  • How Electronic Outlining Helps Technical Writers

3. Extending the Collaborative Conversation

  • Using the Electronic Outliner to Further Conversations at Work
  • Using the Electronic Outliner in a Classroom

Part Two: A Look Back

4. The Paper Model

  • How Outlines First Appeared on Paper
  • How Notes Appeared on Cards
  • Moving from Notecards to Outlines
  • The Advent of the Typewriter

5. Why Outline?

  • Emphasizing the Logic of an Outline
  • Reassuring Students that an Outline Can Be a Practical Time-saver
  • Using Metaphor to Express the Benefits of Outlining

Part Three: Summing Up

6. Toward a New Model of Outlining



Technical writers who must create structures for vast systems of information often use visual displays of hierarchical information to create structures that users can easily understand and navigate. When these writers discover electronic outlining, many adopt it as a tool, because it provides many of the benefits our teachers claimed for outlining, without the tedious and messy activities we faced when trying to revise a paper outline.

In addition, electronic outlining turns out to be an efficient way to focus a meeting on developing an agreed-upon structure for a document. In effect, making the outline fluid, the software offers a way to record new contributions, modifications, reorganization, as a group moves toward greater understanding of its material, its goals, and each other. What electronic outlining demonstrates so visibly, then, is that we are always, in writing, involved in a larger conversation.

Part I: The Situation Today

I begin this book considering the current state of outlining—a process that has provoked controversy in disciplines as widely dispersed as technical writing and composition. Instead of starting with the history, as one might expect, I start with the present, and work backwards. Part I considers the nature of a new tool, the electronic outliner, software that enables restructuring a document on the computer, and, surprisingly, encourages collaborative work on large, complex documents, as well.

Chapter 1: A Little Context

In the first chapter, I sketch the origin of electronic outlining, and suggest that the change from paper and pen to electronics has profound implications for our understanding of the document we call an outline, and the activities that take place during the process of outlining. I summarize the rather skimpy theory of outlining as it emerged from the process movement, who seem to have reacted quite strongly to the school model of "the outline." More recently, other researchers have begun to suggest that outlining can be seen as an important activity within the recursive and overlapping processes of researching, planning, and drafting. I argue that the switch to electronic outlining integrates outlining much more thoroughly into the whole writing process, from start to finish. And, just as hypertext tools have enabled greater collaborative work than was possible with ink and paper, I suggest that electronic outlining may provide another tool for the social construction of knowledge. Reflecting on my own experience creating documentation for major computer companies, I argue that electronic outlining, in fact, can form an even more useful collaborative tool for creating the kind of vast and complex information systems that technical writers are today called on to prepare.

Chapter 2: How Electronic Outlining Helps Writers Turn Structuring into a Continuous Process

What exactly is involved in electronic outlining? Because most people are familiar with word processing, but only a fraction of those have used the electronic outlining modules within their word processing applications, I describe exactly what the electronic outlining software does. It makes possible extensive and wide-ranging work on developing the structure of a document—particularly valuable when the writer is preparing a large document, such as a CD-ROM, a Help system, or a Web site, with information that changes from day to day, in a team with several other writers and folks from other disciplines. With dozens of functions that allow the most common structuring activities of ordinary thought, outlining software allows a writer to consider alternate structures quickly, make changes without being distracted by a need to reformat or recopy, and switch to note-taking or drafting when inspired, without leaving the electronic document. Outlining, then, becomes a view of the material, a structural perspective, always available, encouraging continuous consideration of organization. The result, particularly when done in a team, is a structure that has been so thoroughly edited that it seems clear, even self-evident, to the person who must use the document.

Chapter 3: Extending the Collaborative Conversation

Electronic outlining software is also an excellent collaborative tool for people who are meeting face to face, whether in a classroom or in an office. In this chapter, I distinguish several kinds of group work, focusing on full, person-to-person collaboration. I summarize the ways in which electronic outlining software encourages social routines for this kind of work together. Two examples flesh out this description: in one a team develops the table of contents for a technical manual, and in the other, I lead a class in working together to create an outline together. The instantaneous display of each contribution, the ease with which the group can rework the organization, and the way in which the changeable display serves to focus the group conversation, all help the participants work together, then reflect on the way in which they have created a document that no one person owns, but that reflects their best thoughts, as a group. In this way, the process gives students an example of social construction of knowledge, and an opportunity to think about it, based on their own experience.


Part II: A Look Back

Having described how electronic outlining software works, and how it can contribute to collaborative construction of knowledge, I look back at the school model of "the outline." The new, electronic process serves as a bright background against which I silhouette the ideas and practices many of us took for granted when we lumbered through outlining in school. In these two chapters, I highlight the degree to which the older model derived, unconsciously for the most part, from the media it assumed—ink and paper.

Chapter 4: The Paper Model

Few people in the last century have reasoned very much about outlines, but the tradition of assigning outlines in school indicates how important many teachers considered outlines, as a device for improving the structure of their student’s documents. Because we have no formal theory of outlines, I turn to more than 50 years of textbooks for the picture of the outline being presented by their authors— a practitioners’ model. The medium heavily influences their image of the outline. So I begin with a quick media history of the outline, showing how it may have evolved from ancient times, propelled by the shift from papyrus rolls to vellum sheets bound into books, and then, in the renaissance, by the availability of paper, printing presses, and the arguments of schoolmen like Erasmus and Ramus. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Puritan ministers seem to have adopted Ramus’ method of outlining, and early scientists adopted the technique, as well. By the 19th century, Darwin and other scientists took taxonomic hierarchies—and verbal outlines—as a standard way of organizing vast bodies of information. Similarly, rhetoricians gradually embedded outlining in their courses. For most of the 20th century, outlines have been an accepted assignment in schools and colleges.

Just as notes acquired their own paper format—notecards—outlines became standardized on paper sheets, to judge from the textbooks of the last half century. As a result of the medium, and the constraints it imposed, textbook authors describe the outline as a discreet document, different from notes, and different from a draft. (In the light of our computer screen, we now can see that the same electronic document can handle all three aspects of writing—displaying an outline view, a text view, and a set of notes that can then be hidden, when not needed.) One consequence of the idea that an outline is a discreet document is the misconception that structuring forms a distinct stage. First one outlines, then one writes. This neat paradigm, which was popularized by Warriner (1950), but subscribed to by textbook authors until well into the 1990s, ignores the reality that most writers do a little planning, then a little research, then a little drafting, and so back through the loop in a very untidy process, in which the evolving outline is just part of the way the writer thinks.

Few textbook authors imagine that the outline can grow continuously throughout the project, probably because such real work on structure involves multiple passes through the material—something that becomes quite tedious when recopying a pencilled outline on paper. This unacknowledged difficulty may be why most authors do not consider research as part of outlining, and limit the "writing" in an outline to achieving parallel form. For these authors, if new ideas come up after the outline is "finished," why, the ideas must be incorporated into the draft—one simply cannot go back and update the outline. And if the draft has completely gotten out of hand, one may make up a brand new outline, to analyze its structure—but, being paper, this new outline is an entirely separate document from the original outline, and the draft.

Even when confronted with the arrival of the typewriter on college campuses, and then by word processing, many textbook authors remain quite innocent of the influence the media may have had on their ideas. 25 years after the arrival of word processing, a dozen years after outlining software appeared, the textbook authors continue to write as if an outline is an outline, no matter what medium it is created in. The failure to deal thoughtfully with the fact that most students use word processing indicates the degree to which the textbook authors are still attached to the earlier, paper model.

Chapter 5: Why Outline?

Given how hard it is to revise a paper outline, I am not surprised that most students came to dislike outlining. But most textbook authors still felt outlines could be useful, and their arguments on behalf of the activity reveal several real benefits that students could have had, if they had bothered to spend much time doing the outlines that were assigned.

The first benefit is intellectual: doing an outline improves the logic of one’s document. I hear overtones of discipline envy here—wishing that writing had some of the glamour of engineering, science, or mathematics. But the authors are also expressing, in their emphasis on the idea of logic, that structuring our material is a form of thinking.

The second group of benefits is practical: outlining saves time and money. True enough, if done.

The third group of benefits is described through metaphor, suggesting the less tangible, but still strongly felt reasons for outlining. Authors talk, at last, of making structure visible, the way an architect does with a plan; they stress that this work involves envisioning, seeing in the mind’s eye, and creating. On the analogy of a skeleton, other authors stress the organic whole one can achieve through this work on structure, and a few even talk romantically of the way the whole grows from seed to living form.

Such were the dreams of the textbook authors, the deep currents driving them to recommend outlining, even when the media they inherited—paper and ink—prevented many students from getting these benefits. I argue that electronic outlining makes many of these payoffs possible.


Part III: Summing Up

Having looked at electronic outlining, and looked back at the school model, I pull together a theory of outlining that takes the media into account. I use the contrast between the paper and the electronic model as the basis for a synthesis that, I hope, sheds light on the important function of structuring, when we write.

Chapter 6: Toward a New Model of Outlining

Media make a huge difference to our conception of the process and product of creating a verbal structure. I summarize the differences between the paper and electronic models, then draw out the implications. I argue that there is no such thing as outlining, free of a particular medium. The medium is determinative, constraining and allowing the activities one can carry out, and the end results—hence, one’s ideas and images of what has gone on.

In outlining, then, we turn to some external medium to fix our current thoughts about structure so we can analyze and improve them. In this sense, the outline—in whatever medium—acts as a surrogate for our own previous best thought, encouraging a conversation with ourselves, or with our partners if we are in a collaborative team. As we do more research, we hear other voices; as we debate with other people, we change our own ideas—and the evolving outline may reflect that turn of the conversation as well. Any moment’s outline provides a focus for the talk, an aid to memory, and a record of the conversation "up to now." But it also makes visible that the document we see growing in front of us is truly a collaborative effort, a pulling together of many voices, a symbol of our effort to reach agreement and understanding. We may never "reach" a structure that perfectly represents the information we are puzzling over, but the outline leads us on, if the media are sociable enough, and the tools are convivial, encouraging further consideration. In the end, we are left with the conversation, and its luminous artifact.

Outlining Goes Electronic, by Jonathan Price, Volume 9 in the Association of Teachers of Technical Writing (ATTW) Contemporary Studies in Technical Communication, Ablex (imprint of Elsevier), 100 Prospect Street, Stamford, CT 06904-0811.

Related articles:

STOP: Light on the History of Outlining. Journal of Computer Documentation, forthcoming. (Draft).

Electronic Outlining as a Tool for Making Writing Visible. Computers and Composition. December 1997. 409-427.

Using Complexity Theory to Understand What’s Happening to Technical Communication. IPCC 97 Proceedings, October 22-25, 1997, Salt Lake City, Utah. IEEE Professional Communication Society. 17-27.

How Electronic Outlining Can Help You Create Online Materials. Conference Proceedings, 15th Annual International Conference on Computer Documentation, October 19-22, 1997, Salt Lake City, Utah. Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), Special Interest Group on Systems Documentation (SIGDOC). 211-221.


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Copyright 1998 Jonathan and Lisa Price, The Communication Circle
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