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Electronic Outlining as a Tool for Making Writing Visible

DRAFT for Computers and Composition, December, 1997, 409-427

Jonathan Price

The electronic outlining software found in many commercial programs, when projected on the classroom wall, helps us train students in the main activities involved in creating an outline. Freed from paper, the electronic outline allows continuous revision, encourages multiple iterations of the many interdependent activities involved in research, planning, writing, and revision, and serves as a focal point for discussion of the ways in which the group is developing an ongoing consensus, as part of a larger conversation.

Keywords: outline, outlining, electronic, software, composition, technical writing, collaboration, social construction, classroom, conversation

Electronic outlining software helps show students that structural analysis and constructive thinking are an essential part of the process of writing, particularly collaborative writing. Electronic outlining first appeared in dedicated programs such as ThinkTank or More, but it soon became a "view," or mode, in word processors such as Microsoft Word, presentation packages like PowerPoint, and integrated packages such as ClarisWorks. Electronic outlining does for an outline what word processing does for a draft (Crawford, 1989; Daiute, 1985; Rogers, 1986). Automating a set of activities that were difficult to do on paper, the software shifts attention from product to process, makes that process easier to carry out, and allows us to articulate our understanding of the many activities involved (Daiute, 1985) while also facilitating a form of collaboration that would not have been possible on paper.

Outlining on the computer rather than on paper, one can create a much more visible hierarchy, not cramped by handwriting, tiny labels, and irregular indentation, and one can investigate it immediately by changing order, level, phrasing, or sequence without recopying, scribbling over, or drawing arrows. One sees the effect of any organizational change instantly. The sheer convenience encourages a more thorough exploration of the evolving structure as one discovers new ideas, revises parts of the organization, tries out some writing, and goes back to the books or Internet to do more research. Done by an individual in this way, electronic outlining becomes central to the writing process, instead of an annoying stage required by some highschool teacher. Electronic outlining becomes a way of viewing the material, getting a structural perspective, and thereby developing a more coherent interpretation.

When used in the classroom to focus and record an ongoing conversation, outlining software encourages group collaboration in brainstorming, researching, organizing, and writing. The electronic nature of the medium makes it possible to record and review more ideas and leads to structurally focused and more thorough peer review.

More important, electronic outlining can act as a sort of grown-up Lego set, externalizing and making manipulable the thinking processes involved in outlining while the collaborating participants reorder, resequence, add, subtract, work up from the bottom, or drill down from the top.

Outlining software, then, acts to externalize the process of structural revision, standing in for "what we thought a minute ago," allowing us to stand apart and carry on a conversation with our earlier position. In this way, the software brings the internal conversation into the open. Used in class, the software helps students "see" that they are, together, constructing a collective understanding, using the emerging outline as a placeholder for previous thoughts, an additional participant in the social construction of knowledge.

Recent scholarship on the pedagogy of arrangement tends to focus on the development of structure, rather than on outlining as a tool, arguing that a concern for structure can take us beyond the patterns-of-development approach, and engage the rhetorical situation as part of a process orientation (Coe, 1987; Enos, 1985; Hartwell, 1979; Knoblauch and Brannon, 1984; Olsen, 1989; Podis, 1980, Podis and Podis, 1990). Wary of offering any rhetorical scheme as a static arrangement promising students control over material, Podis and Podis (1990) stress their own anxiety, indecision, hemming and hawing, their own experience of being out of control, as they arranged their essay on arrangement.

In investigating the way writers plan their work, Hayes and Flower (1980) and Kaufer, Hayes, and Flower (1986) suggest that after mental mulling over the subject, a writer may write down a plan in an outline form. Flower and Hayes (1981a, 1981b) criticize the outline as a product-based plan, the kind of plan that occurs "when the composing process is governed by a concern for the form of the finished product," (1981b, 49) and suggest that the difficulty of producing a formal outline can slow the writer down. In 1984 they drew a distinction between fragmentary, vague, and incomplete plans for writing, which they saw as useful, and "more formal, logical, and limited ‘plans’ associated with outlines and notes" (1984, 124). Stotsky (1990) pointed out that in much research on planning, the ideas of goals, plans, and strategies are conflated or left astonishingly vague. She concluded: "It is not clear what kind of plans the process of planning results in or how plans and goals may be distinguished from one another, if indeed they are distinct entities" (42) She noted how practitioners applied theory and found similar confusion. Researchers on the composing process have also found that writers contemplating a short piece rarely outline (Beteiter and Scardamalia, 1987; Emig, 1971; Hillocks, 1986; Mischel, 1974; Perl, 1979; Pianko, 1979; Stallard, 1974), although writers facing a longer or more complex document often do (Emig, 1971; Kellogg, 1988; Kulthau, 1988; McCarthy, 1985; Nelson, 1992; Sommers and McQuade, 1984; Stein, 1990; Taylor and Beach, 1984). But, as Stotsky (1990) stated, "the practice of formal outlining recommended in traditional texts may be inhibiting" (46).

Indeed, the traditional textbook model presented an outline as a single document, not as a process; a document decorated with typographical codes borrowed from mathematics and Latin, arranged in nested sequences that few students comprehend; a document, moreover, that acts as a rigid blueprint the student must follow when drafting, with any violations (or new ideas) being punished by the teacher as a violation of contract. In other words, the real purpose of outlining, to develop a meaningful structure for the document, became lost amid the use of paper (which made changing anything difficult) and pen (which afforded few ways of indicating hierarchy other than indentation and the extremely arbitrary typographical codes indicating levels and sequences), as well as a pedagogy favoring forms over process, and individual work (one student, one outline) over group work. Daiute (1985) also points to the medium as a major problem with the formal outline as recommended universally by teachers and textbooks through the 1960s.

Influenced by cognitive psychologists’ distinction between thinking and writing (Newell and Simon, 1972; Schank and Abelson, 1977), writing researchers have continued to act as if an outline is a written-down thought rather than viewing the process of outlining as a way of thinking. Stotsky (1990) points out, "The interaction between thought and written language during the planning process may be the critical activity that determines the coherence of the first draft" (49). In fact, she urges that we consider the text-level verbal thinking that Witte (1987) calls pretext "as part of the composing/drafting process" (53). She suggests a more intimate relationship between composing and drafting than cognitivists have acknowledged, and, following Vygotsky, stresses that as we think verbally, we move back and forth "between thought and visible (or audible) language" (Stotsky, 1990, 54).

In my experience, outlining electronically allows individuals and groups to think aloud, record their thoughts onscreen, analyze those thoughts as if they came from an "other," and collectively come to a new understanding. This software visibly blurs old distinctions between planning, researching, and drafting.

Although not directly dealing with outlines, most studies in the last 25 years show that the various processes involved in writing occur again and again, cyclically overlapping, and frequently intersecting with each other [Hult and Harris (1987), Kostelnick (1989a), Moberg (1986), and Schwartz (1985)]. What’s odd is that outlining gets mentioned so rarely in these discussions. Walvoord et al (1995) state:

In this body of research, outlining is either absent, conflated with other categories, classified in such a way as to obscure its unique features, specifically omitted from powerful writing processes, or negatively associated with linear or unproductive composing practices. (p. 393)

They point out that Flower and Hayes (1977, 1992) attacked outlines as mere products, ignored their position as a bridge between planning and writing, dismissed outlines as encouraging writers to "paint by numbers--to simply fill in the blanks" (1977, 457), and condemned them as a crutch and a straitjacket. Hillocks (1986) also dismissed textbook recommendations such as "formulate a thesis, develop an outline, and write" (27). However, Walvoord et al (1995) state:

But now that the research so richly suggests the fluidity, complexity, and interconnectedness of writing processes and forms, it is time to unhitch the outline from its narrow textbook definition to explore how students actually use it, and to reconsider it in that context. (p. 394)

In their study of college students’ development of complex papers in several disciplines, Walvoord et al. (1995) found that outlining emerged as "a powerful strategy that cut across, participated in, and transcended individual processes such as planning or organizing [and served] multiple functions across a broad span of the writing process" (p. 418) In my experience, electronic outlining, as a process, involves cyclically, almost randomly, researching, organizing, and writing.

Just as the move to word processing encouraged and made more visible the social nature of writing (Costanzo, 1994; Duin and Hansen, 1994; Eldred, 1989; Hawisher, 1994; Humphrey, 1987; Rodrigues and Rodrigues, 1986), electronic outlining encourages a social perspective. Duin and Hansen (1994) define a social perspective this way:

Social interaction can be seen as the mechanism for the process of social construction, the means by which individuals cooperate to construct and interpret reality, and a means by which individuals become literate.... The basic idea of social construction is that groups of people, bound by shared experiences or interests, build meaning through an ongoing process of communication, interpretation, and negotiation. Facts, beliefs, truth itself result from a social process of conversation and consensus building. (pp. 90-91)

Because of rhetorical concerns with audience, much of the thinking in this field focuses on the conversation between the writer and the reader, as suggested by Bakhtin and Volosinov (1929), but with the increase of writing groups, more scholars recognize that writing itself can be done collaboratively, through extended conversations (Duin and Hansen, 1994; Ede and Lunsford, 1990). Unfortunately, few researchers have explored electronic outlining within this context.

Similarly, the electronic tools for creating hypertexts together foster the construction of knowledge and text in groups (Irish and Trigg, 1989; Adelson and Jordan, 1992), but, as Johnson-Eilola (1994) points out, most hypertext theorists have either disregarded the interplay of technology and social practice, or focused too exclusively on the technology (Hawisher, 1989, Kaplan, 1991). Johnson-Eilola (1994) remarks, "The social aspects of the construction of knowledge are not always visible to the participants" (p. 214). I believe that electronic outlining, used in the classroom, helps make social interaction more visible.

In the context of the extensive scholarship on writing, then, outlining as an activity remains weakly theorized, and despite increased interest in word processing and hypertext, outlining on the computer has not been seriously explored for its full capabilities. Farkas (1995) called for more study of electronic outlining because he saw it as a valuable tool. In this article I provide some indication of the way it works in industry and in the classroom as a device for thinking, as a facilitator of collaboration, and as an eye-opening representation of the social construction that goes on during collaborative writing. In the process, I disclose my experiences, because they may serve as raw material for others to consider theoretically or pedagogically, and because, as Bleich (1995) says,

A pedagogy of individual and collective disclosure can help to revoke the polarization of the subjective and the collective as categories of experience. Such teaching can maintain the necessity of understanding the collective within the subjective, and the subjective within the collective. (p. 47)

I include autobiographical material because although I am sure it reflects the experience of others, I do not find any articles in which other writers, practitioners, or researchers directly discuss the particular benefits I have experienced. I hope others will adapt the approach I describe here, to see if it can be useful in other contexts.

Situating my experience in the spectrum of collaborative outlining

My enthusiasm for electronic outlining is based on my experience as a professional writer collaborating intensively on some twenty projects in technical communication over the last ten years. To lay the groundwork for my description of classroom usage, I need to go back a decade, to explain how I came to see outlining software as a useful tool for collaboration, through my work in industry.

Working with one to five collaborators from 1986 through 1998, I have used outlining software to create five manuals and six online help systems for computer companies such as Apple, Claris, Epson, and GO, as well as nine mostly technical books published by Addison-Wesley, Southwestern, and Viking/Penguin. Our decision to use outlining software was overdetermined, as Apple (1986), Bell (1975), and Tuman (1992), have suggested is so often the case with choice of tools; one outliner had been heavily funded by a company I worked for, so I’d tried it out, liked it, and recommended it.

My collaborators and I spent some 60% of the entire schedule developing the outline far beyond the initial table of contents, which is about as far as many teams go (Allen et al., 1987). We worked together to flesh out the initial table of contents, putting in new features as they arose, removing options no longer needed, shifting procedures around as we came to understand them better, resequencing the explanations, and moving major sections forward and back.

  1. During the first few months, the majority of our time was spent sitting together looking at the computer monitor, swapping the keyboard as one, then the other, got an idea. We argued about sequence, interpretation, emphasis, hierarchy, phrasing, and process until we reached agreement (not just acquiescence). We took that outline well past the initial document plan, so we could accommodate new understandings, new features, new marketing emphases. We also drove the outline down to the level of steps in procedures and explanations of individual commands. We were, in effect, researching and writing as we outlined.
  2. We postponed doing any solo writing until more than half way through the project, because we wanted to keep our structure open, accurate, and up to date. We then took individual chapters home and fleshed them out. But unlike our experiences with similar writing, we now knew the subject inside out, and because we had really understood and agreed to the structure, we had almost no structural rethinking, reconsidering, or regrets to work through. The remaining writing went incredibly fast.
  3. When we got to the second and final drafts, we discovered that unlike every solo or team project I have witnessed in the computer industry, the structure held up under the scrutiny of two dozen reviewers; we had no last-minute structural changes to make, and so, even during the last week before production, we were able to knock off by midnight.

Such extended face-to-face collaboration goes well beyond the teamwork, reviewer feedback, informal chatting, email exchanges, chapter swapping, and enforced cooperation that are often considered collaboration in industry (Couture and Rymer, 1989; Davis, 1977; Duin, 1991; Duin and Hansen, 1994; Ede and Lunsford, 1986, 1990; Faigley and Miller, 1982), and sidesteps a basic assumption of many computer-supported collaborative work applications, which aim to draw together people at far ends of a network, in virtual communities (Duin, 1991; Kiesler et al., 1988; Mabrito, 1992) We were unusual, but only in degree. We were testing out an idea to see how far we could take writing toward the improvisatory collaboration of jazz. More common is a writing process in which each author develops a tentative table of contents to go into the group’s document design, but retains control and ownership over his or her chapter, book, or online system, while he or she diplomatically conforms to a thousand agreed-upon formats, phrasings, and spellings, gets reviewed by many other folks in different fields, revises according to team decisions, responds diplomatically to editorial suggestions, adjusts personal aesthetics to a corporate style and layout, and, very occasionally, incorporates suggestions from members of the intended audience. As I have seen in working on dozens of other documentation teams, as well as consulting with dozens more, all of these activities take writing well beyond the romantic idea of the individual poet scribbling alone in a garret; these activities transform writing into a social process. Collaboration, then, may be thought of as existing along a continuum (compare Schneider, 1990) , ranging from the most isolated author adjusting a line of iambic pentameter for an adored audience of one, through the give-and-take of regular technical and business writing, to the most intense form, in my opinion, the direct conversation of several people sitting around the same computer talking together as they try to make sense of a complex subject. At this more intense end of the spectrum, then, one loses all sense of personal ownership of a phrase, a sentence, a diagram; one can no longer harbor secret resentments and go home and "do it my way."

Such direct, conversational collaboration, we concluded, worked best when we focused on questions of organization, allowing the details of phrasing to emerge as the result of our discussions of structure. Electronic outlining software gave us a way to consider alternate structures more quickly, thoroughly, and thoughtfully than any other tool we tried (paper, yellow stickies, white board drawings, diagramming software). Why? With a dedicated electronic outliner like More˘, we were able to carry out many of the outlining activities that our teachers had encouraged in the past; in high school, we had tried those activities but given up after one or two outline drafts, because revising the outline on paper proved too tedious.

The structure-making activities for which we now used the electronic outliner included many that our high school teachers had recommended, and a few they had never mentioned. We also began to describe these outlining activities in the language we learned from the programs, rather than in the terms we recalled from highschool. We came to consider all of the following as outlining activities:

• Identifying potential topics, and recording them in a list

• Appending notes, comments, rough drafts of sentences and paragraphs under some topics, as research proceeds

• Deleting duplicate topics

• Merging related topics

• Dividing one topic into its component subtopics

• Assembling various low-level topics and creating a new topic to group them under

• Disassembling a grouping that does not work, parceling its subtopics out among various other topics

• Promoting a subtopic to the level of a topic

• Demoting a topic to become a subtopic under some other topic

• Creating a recognizable sequence for all the topics at a particular level

• Giving items in the same group the same grammatical form, when they serve the same function, or belong to the same category (though not all do in the outline of a manual)

• Rephrasing items to articulate the reason they appear where they do in the hierarchy

• Ensuring that all topics of the same type (such as procedures) appear at the same level throughout the outline, for the sake of the electronic menuing system that the outline models and presages

• Ensuring that similar topics have similar subtopics, and, if not, making sure there’s a good reason why not

• Returning to research materials to make sure no valid topic has been left out

• Writing in a whole paragraph, to find out whether the subtopic really belongs where it is (learning by writing it down)

Unlike a word processor, outlining software can single out and display all the items at a certain level in the hierarchy, privileging them to our full attention, so we can study that particular set of topics as a set, considering whether the topics all belong together, whether they are in the right order, and whether the phrasing makes clear why the topics are arranged the way they are. Whenever we found a problem with the structure, the outlining software made it easy to drag the offending item up, down, left, or right, into its new position, and once the topic reached its destination, the software instantly applied the proper formatting for that level in the hierarchy (rather than forcing us to select the text, and apply new styles, as in the interweaving of words and format brought under writers control by word processing, as described so well by Bernhardt 1986, Costanzo (1994), Hawisher (1991), Kaplan and Moulthrop (1993), Kostelnick (1989b, 1990, 1994, 1996), Landow and Delany (1993), Rude (1988) and Ruskiewicz (1988). The formatting (using different fonts, sizes, colors, and indents for each level) made the relationships much more visible than prefixes such as "IIa" ever could; the visual emphasized the structure and made it easier to manipulate directly (Apple Computer,1987; Hutchins et al., 1986; Shneiderman, 1983; Young, 1991)

Because many of the documents we were collaborating on were destined to be read onscreen, rather than on paper, we used the outliner’s ability to hide and reveal topics to consider the list at a particular level as if it were a menu. In the online help system, users would, we anticipated, move through a series of menus to pick topics to explore; the outliner let us troubleshoot each menu, without any distracting text underneath the menu items. Electronic outlining prepared us for online delivery, giving us an interactive preview. So, although electronic outlining has, essentially, no theory of its own compared to hypertext which has inspired many theorists such as those discussed in Bolter (1990), Johnson-Eilola (1994), Landow(1992), and Selber (1995), electronic outlining provides invaluable assistance to technical writers who actually create the structured menu systems serving the vast majority of real-world hypertexts, which are not literary, or scholarly, but organizational, serving information en masse over the Web, or delivering CD-ROM documentation for high technology products and services.

The change in medium from paper to electronics transforms the activities involved in outlining, making them easier to perform, faster to show results, neater, and easier to read. The electronic medium speeds up the interrelated and overlapping activities of invention, notation, writing, reconsideration, and revision; in fact, these cycles happen so often and so smoothly that one hardly thinks of an outline as a fixed document any more, but simply as an ongoing process in which the text is fluid. In collaborative work, outlining acts as a temporary record of agreements, a field of reconsideration, a way to demonstrate new ideas and hold them in place while we discuss them.

Later, when I taught professional writers in workshops, I brought the outlining software with me, to record and project our opinions on the wall and to help us work together to compare and choose among many alternate structures for their information systems. Recently, when I began teaching undergraduates in technical writing, I used the software to encourage students to brainstorm, outline, do more research, outline, rewrite, outline, and finally to consider the emerging outline as an outward and visible manifestation of the ongoing conversation.

The classroom setup

As homework before class, I ask students to read through research materials such as a set of functional specifications, a rough draft of a manual, or an earlier version of a manual we must revise.

In the classroom I connect a computer to a liquid-crystal display (LCD) panel that captures the screen in motion, and I put the LCD panel on an overhead projector. In this way, I can modify whatever text we are working on, and students see the results as I type. The projected image can be read by as many as 60 students. The computer is also networked to a printer, so I can print out the results of our class discussion and give copies to students during class.

I make it clear to students that their own individual work will grow out of the collective outline we are about to create. Individuals may have to take a section and turn that into actual procedures or reference materials. So each student has an additional, individual incentive for making sure that personal views are reflected in the emerging document, and each recognizes the need to understand how topics have been carved up and portioned out.

Brainstorming: Collaborative invention using the outliner on the screen

With the objective of discovering all the topics we might write about, we start brainstorming. We generally follow the rule that we must accept each idea without criticizing, and students quickly get into the rhythm, suggesting their own ideas, borrowing phrases from the paper materials, sometimes explaining their contribution, sometimes just shouting it out.

To avoid burdening students with the chore of learning a new piece of software (often a real problem in computer-supported collaborative work, in my experience, and as reported by Forman, 1991), I am usually the one at the keyboard, and I type as fast as I can, to make sure I get every word right. (When students have taken over the keyboard, they have complained that the pressure of typing makes it hard for them to participate in the discussion; so, although I am in control of the computer, I am acting as a servant of the discussion, and I seem to empower their discussion by acting as their recording secretary). I hate blackboard brainstorming, where the facilitator listens to you talk for five minutes, then puts up one word. If someone has a ten-word heading, I take it all down. I have to practice listening, a skill not always associated with teaching, as Coles (1991) points out. If I haven’t heard it all, or if I forget part, I make sure the student goes over every word, so nothing is left out.

This way, as soon as someone has suggested a topic, it appears on the screen. Consider the effect. The screen publishes the idea, grants it a place of honor, and places the idea at the center of discussion. Trainers say that feedback delayed is no feedback at all (Mager, 1988), so, in effect, this approach rewards each student promptly for contributions.

Occasionally one student will revise a phrase someone else has just suggested, and in this case I type both phrases. We may go on, or if a dispute breaks out, we may thrash out a resolution, rewriting one or both of the suggested topics. I point out that collaboration does not mean smiley-face acquiescence, but rather confronting real disagreement, postponing consensus, and figuring out what we really (Burnett, 1993). Sometimes the resolution depends on going back to the original sources and rereading to come to a better understanding of the subject. In this way, even though we are officially just inventing, we are revisiting research and experimenting.

As the discussion continues, new ideas keep appearing, and eventually each student’s contribution scrolls up out of sight. Occasionally, when inspiration stalls, I scroll back through the list. At this point, the individual’s contribution has become a part of the group’s product. Even if a student still feels ownership of a golden phrase, he or she can see that it has become part of a document created jointly by the class.

I leave my own ideas out, so the list belongs to the students. Authority, at first problematic in many group writing situations (Cooper and Selfe ,1990; Kremers ,1990; Moran,1990), becomes less of a distraction when I act as their secretary; I retain authority while giving some of it away (as opposed to pretending that we are all sharing authority, as described in Zuboff (1988) and Loehr (1995). If the discussion goes well, I stay out of it; if the students get bogged down, I may ask a leading question or suggest they turn back to the paper materials for ideas. I resist adding any of my own phrases to the list, even if I know they have forgotten something important, because I have found that the subsequent work of revising the outline usually forces an encounter with missing topics. This approach seems to allow us to hand authority around, putting one person in charge, then another, reducing my grand persona as professor, and elevating their individual importance, one at a time, as well as granting the group as a whole the right to make major decisions. In this sense, I sometimes manage to become what Rymer (1993) describes as an instructor who is also a collaborator.

When the list reaches stasis, or everyone is exhausted, we print it out to look over after class. In the next class, we focus on organizing the list to satisfy the needs of the various target audiences.

Coaching the team in outlining

Once we have the rough list of topics, I move from the role of facilitator to coach. I encourage, cheer, criticize, make suggestions, but leave the document to them. The situation is artificial because they are not my employees, or coworkers, or professional writers; in many cases what they write will not actually be used. The artificiality of the class exercise, like that of sports or games, gives us a certain freedom from consequences, but for some students, that unreality also induces a lack of seriousness, a detachment, and casual insincerity. By turning the job back over to them, I am acting as I do with professional writers in a real corporation or lab; in that sense, I am just a coach, so more of the responsibility for doing a good job falls on their shoulders.

As coach, I urge students to delete duplicates and merge topics. Performing these activities takes us through the list of topics again and again, gradually creating a many-leveled organization and polishing the language. The visual nature of the outline helps us analyze and develop quite complex structures, contrary to what Tuman (1992) feared when he imagined that because we had no printed text, we would have no opportunity to shape "disparate thoughts into a unified document" (p. 4). On the contrary, as Kaufer et al (1993) point out, "Individuals need to make their ideas visible and persuasive to themselves as well as to their collaborators" (p. 37). In my class comments, I try to move all these activities out of the area of the "dimly perceived" to the explicitly recognized (Bazerman, 1994, p. 11). I point out what we are doing in each pass, naming each outlining activity (using the terms listed earlier, in my section on situating my experience), and shifting the focus momentarily from the outline as artifact to the kind of thinking we are doing together.

As a constructivist tool, then, the software allows students to carry out the same activity on many portions of the material, learning to apply that line of thinking in many different contexts. The many activities facilitated by this software help to model another aspect of outlining: the fact that to do outlining well one must sometimes go back to research to learn more, then, on returning to the outline, one must do some rewriting to reflect what one has learned. All three activities take place in the same site.

For example, in one class, we started out to delete duplicate topics from our list, and found three candidate topics: Status Messages, Feedback, and Error Messages. Could we drop one of these? To find out, we had to reread the specifications and the manual. We learned that the program offered only two kinds of feedback: status messages and error messages. So we could drop the Feedback topic as an unnecessary duplication. As we compared the descriptions of various messages, we learned that there was only one Status message, a count-down indicating how much longer the processing would take, but there were dozens of error messages, all distinct from this little ticker. So we were really only dealing with one status message (singular) and many error messages (plural).

Upon further discussion, we concluded that really what people might want to know was the status of their job, so instead of calling this information a message, we used a title based on the language users employed when describing the process, "Status of Your Job." The resulting topics were: Status of Your Job and Error Messages. Clearly, undertaking the apparently trivial activity of removing duplicates can require new research, and slight but important rewrites. Pointing out that we have been iteratively cycling through a number of activities that students think of as occurring only in distinct stages helps students get over their tendency to typecast the outline as a boring, arbitrary document that is supposed to be created after research, and before any writing, essentially a set of notes to prove to the teacher that they have done their reading.

The recursive nature of outlining becomes clear, just as word processing helped demonstrate the looping-back dynamic process of writing (Emig, 1970; Flower and Hayes, 1981a, 1981b, 1984; Flower et al., 1990; Hawisher, 1994; Hult and Harris, 1987; Moberg, 1986; Schwarz, 1985) Students begin to see that they can go beyond the model many of them learned in high school, a variation on the distinct stages in the textbooks of Warriner et al. (1958, 379-380). (First you research, then you outline, then you write). "I thought I was crazy the way I did a little of this, then a little of that," one student remarked. "But now I see that’s normal."

I sometimes anthropomorphize the emerging outline as a robotic participant in our conversation, a speaker who has a better memory than the rest of us, being able to replay our latest agreement, and remind us of what we all thought a few minutes ago. "Revising this way," one student commented, "is like looking at our work as if someone else had done it." Like the distancing adopted by extensive revisers of drafts (Beach 1976), the students get to resee the text. Such decentering (Fitschen, 1986) makes the outline into the trace Witte (1992) describes when he says that any meaning emerging from a document is the result of "Processes of negotiating the intellectual and emotional space between the ‘self’ and the ‘other,’ between the individual and the social, as the multiple voices of distinct constructive semioses mix on what might be called the battlefield of the ‘trace’" (p. 287). So electronic outlining does more than allow students to carry out activities that were difficult to do over and over on paper; it provides visual evidence that we think in these ways

Reflecting on our social construction

We engage in purposeful conversation. We have an aim, but we are also talking with each other, in person. Despite our goal, we make jokes, detour off target to gossip, come back on track. Winston Churchill once said that conversation is "the worst possible way to get things done, except for all the rest," (Plumb, 1990, p. 208), and that’s why the somewhat erratic path keeps the talk lively, gradually drawing people together, encouraging the shy to jump in, reverting to chat at times, then getting back to business.

As the discussion continues, I sometimes ask students to talk about what they see happening. Their comments stress several themes—their growing knowledge of the subject matter, the fact that the outline is "only temporary," and the fact that no one person owns any particular piece of the outline anymore. The outline, then, has become an outward manifestation of the ongoing conversation, a temporary record of the collective understanding to date, and a tool for thinking together.

Growing "knowledge"

Students say that this focused set of activities forces them to come to grips with the subject matter in a way they have never experienced. "It’s like really tearing it apart, and putting it back together again," said one student, whose expression suggested that he saw the assembly and disassembly of the outline as corresponding to an imaginary dissection and rebuilding of the subject matter itself. Indeed, each new outlining activity demands that the class reconsider, compare, reread, and look at component subtopics, parallel topics, and the enfolding topic.

The process of examining and revising the outline allowed us to hear how others interpreted the phrases we thought were perfectly understandable and accurate. Considering the subject from these perspectives, constantly revising our conception to accommodate the others, we emerged with a much more detailed understanding of the subject matter than we had at the start. "I never had to dig into something like this," one student remarked. Another commented, "This structural approach helps me understand a lot more than what I did before, which was, well, sort of soaking stuff up by osmosis."

Students also became much more articulate. One student said with amazement, "Once you understand it, it’s easy to write about." Every mature writer urges beginners to "write about what you know," but few say how to come to know something. Our collaborative outlining offers beginners one way to interrogate the subject thoroughly enough to come to "know" it, or at least, to feel comfortable with many aspects of it. They experienced the way "understanding" can lead to facility of expression.

Of course, there is no magical act called understanding, no final conclusion we can identify as an accurate comprehension of the subject, probably not even a momentary epiphany. Instead, we have our emerging interpretation of the subject, one that is very site specific, having been crafted for a particular audience in a particular context. That interpretation is to some degree reflected in our developing outline. I do not call this interpretation knowledge, either, because I have no certainty that we know very much; but our interpretation has become more internally coherent. It does not have as many black holes, niggling inconsistencies, and areas that make us dizzy. We are more satisfied with it as an interpretation we can present to our ultimate audience.

Students describe a change they observe in our text, too, saying that the outline has become clearer. When I probe, I find they are not thinking that we have somehow "let the subject show through," as my New Critical professors used to urge. That Platonic ideal assumed there was a real subject which could show through, refulgent, and we just had to get out of the way to let that light through. No, in the students’ sense, a clear outline simply means that as writers we have considered the matter thoroughly enough to eliminate many of the verbal attributes that cause readers to scratch their collective heads—duplicate items, trivial items at the top level, key items buried out of sight, related items strewn about with no connection, a large topic treated without any attempt to divide into its components, related topics in a single list not being grouped together, topics at the same level not having any recognizable sequence, and so on. "Clear," then, is a praise word, as Frost said of poetry, meaning that you hope the audience will regard your outline (and your document) as clear, but that is for the audience to decide. As an audience, reflecting on our own work, we feel we can see patterns quickly, recognize the reasoning behind the structures, and proceed without doubt, confusion, or anxiety through the structure, to reach a destination.

Recognizing that any outline is "for now"

Because we revise the outline in so many sessions and in so many different ways, students begin to recognize that an outline does not have to be considered a finished document, a discrete thing, but a part of a process, and therefore always "for now." Students say they "could go on forever tinkering with this." In their binders, students may collect half a dozen printouts of the outline at various stages, each with a different date in the header; the paper copies are simply a way of preserving our interpretation as it was when we reached one or another convenient breakpoint and sent the text to the printer. The outline, if they think of it as a document, remains multivoiced, open, as changeable as quicksilver (compare Lanham, 1990). Just as the openness of a text can be externalized (Smith, 1994, 280) through hypertext (Balestri, 1988; Joyce 1988; Johnson-Eilola, 1994; Landow, 1992; Landow and Delany, 1993 ), the temporariness of all developing materials is demonstrated by the very endlessness of our activities, the fact that they seem to go on and on, and we only slow down because the bell rings, or we begin to feel we need to move on. "I never feel as if we have finished," another student said.

Abandoning ownership

Students see that the evolving outline grows out of the whole class, shows traces of all our discussions, and does not belong to any one person. At first, people still show pride of ownership when we turn our attention to one of their phrases. But gradually they let go and even take part in revising text they first contributed. The words do not have signatures attached, and most students say they cannot recall who said what, at least a few days later. Some notice that they no longer even remember which phrases they contributed. This sense of surprised detachment is especially striking when they realize they are looking at something they offered, without recognizing it as their own. One student laughed out loud at a good joke in one outline, and was surprised to hear that she was the one who had added it in the first place.

The idea that writing is a solitary task, and the corollary that an outline is one person’s work, lies deep in our culture. In working together on this evolving outline, these students discover that they can do verbal work collaboratively, and that this document is a social construction. They do not go as far as Bakhtin in denying individual ownership to every document (Bakhtin 1981, 1986a; Bakhtin and Volosinov, 1986) but they see that "This represents all of us, and it doesn’t matter how many words I got into it, or didn’t get into it," as one student said. Furthermore, the whole process comes to be considered a large conversation, as Halliday (1978) suggested, "not something that has a beginning and an ending. The exchange of meanings is a continuous process" (p. 136).


The shift from pen and paper to the electronic media has given us a software tool that dramatically shifts attention from a momentary product to an ongoing process, in which structural analysis and constructive thinking are played out on the screen, as many previously half-conscious activities become visible, and the group takes advantage of the very presence and changeableness of the emerging outline to watch the collaborative writing unfold.

We have managed, at least for a few hours, to shift the focus from the document to the process, from the individual to the group, and from the primacy of the written to the sheer overwhelming presence—embedded in any written document—of the conversation itself.


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