Chapter 9: Towards the Well-Researched Paper
The Outline: Basics
The third question in the previous section asked whether you could imagine your discussion of your central document continuing throughout your paper. If you answered “yes” to that question, you can test your assertion by drafting an outline.
In Chapter 4, we spent some time writing a detailed outline of our close reading. As that chapter explains, an outline will save you time later in the essay-writing process because it acts as your roadmap. Picturing the outline as a map can be useful. Just as a map will provide you with an overview of many possible routes to your destination, allowing you to work out which ones to avoid and which ones will get you most quickly and effectively to your destination, an outline will highlight potential roadblocks (tangents, ideas without evidence behind them, ideas that go nowhere, undeveloped points, weak points that rely on opinion, etc.) while also revealing promising connections. The outline allows you to see where you’re going and decide on the best way to get there. If you eventually decide the approach in your outline is flawed, you can modify it later.
In the case of a research essay, the outline has another function as well: it will demonstrate which aspects of your argument currently lack secondary evidence. You have spent some time with your primary document, but you have not incorporated your research. We’ll begin discussing research and how to work with it in our next section. For now, just keep it in mind as you move through the outline.
Chapter 4 includes the suggestion that your essay’s outline follow the trajectory of your three-storey thesis. This remains a good method of organization. Keep in mind, however, that there is no one cookie-cutter method for structuring an essay. If your impulse is to look at the sample outlines in these chapters and follow them exactly, you are relying too strongly on the idea that an essay should follow a formula. An essay does not have a set number of paragraphs, and sometimes, taking a structure-based risk—for instance, spending some time on what appears to be a tangent, but turns out to provide an essential part of your argument—can be very effective.
As we move through the outline, we’ll begin to acknowledge an element that did not turn up in Chapter 4’s outlining exercise: research. We’ll be discussing research in more detail in the next section, where we’ll also go more deeply into how you might incorporate it into your essay. For now, as we go over an outline based on the three-storey thesis we constructed above, we will simply acknowledge the potential for research. When a point seems as if it might need some research, we’ll make note of it. Don’t worry: we’ll revisit these notes in the next section. As you read, try to think about why the essay may need secondary support in particular paragraphs.