An outline is a way of dividing a subject into its major parts, of dividing these in turn into subparts, and so on, into finer and finer detail. There are formal outlines, which are usually turned in with a composition and even serve as compositions in their own right. And there are informal outlines, often called "working" or "scratch" outlines. The formal variety follows rules that prescribe the alternating use of numbers and letters and the way in which the analysis must proceed. But formal outlines and their rules will not concern us here.
Our interest is in the scratch outline, which serves only the writer's use and may be cast in any form that works. Begin by asking: What are the major sections of my composition? For example:
II. How attitudes toward sex, love, and marriage in the differ from those in the
III. Why the differences occurred
Now apply a similar question to each major section: Beginning
A. Identify subject and establish the reasons for the change rather than on the change itself
B. Quality and limit: attitudes in question are the predominating ones, those which set the tone of a generation
II. How attitudes toward sex, love, and marriage differ in the 1990s from those in the
A. permissive, less promiscuous
B. not so completely a preemptive good
C. calculating, rational; avoid early marriage, first get career on track
A. Feminism—more job opportunities for women and greater independence; also stronger sense of their own worth—all this weakens the allure of love and marriage
B. Tighter economy—future has to be planned more carefully, less room for romantic illusions
C. More self-centered view of life—partly a result of the two conditions above, but becomes a cause in its own right
A. The attitudes of the nineties more realistic, less prone to disillusion
B. But perhaps idealism has been sacrificed, or weakened, and the prevailing materialism is too ready to sell the world short
Thus the analysis could go on: the A's and B's broken down, examples introduced, comparisons offered, and so on. Generally, it is better to proceed with the analysis one step at a time, as in the example above. This keeps the whole subject better in mind and is more likely to preserve a reasonable balance. If you exhaustively analyze category I before moving on to II, then carry II down to detail before tackling III, you may lose sight of the overall structure of the composition.
How far you take a scratch outline depends on the length of your composition and obviously on your willingness to spend time in planning. But the more planning you do, the easier the actual writing will be. A good scratch outline suggests where possible paragraph breaks might come, and the ideas you have jotted down in the headings are the germs of topic statements and supporting sentences.
But however you proceed and however far you carry the scratch outline, remember that as a plan it is only tentative, subject to change. And the odds are that you will change it. No matter how much you think about a subject or how thoroughly you plan, the actuality of writing opens up unforeseen possibilities and reveals the weakness of points that seemed important. A scratch outline is a guide, but a guide you should never hesitate to change.
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