Writing an outline

The goal of the pre-writing work spent on organisation is to create an outline for the text. As a starting point, the outline might consist of only section headings or key arguments. Although you might think that working on an outline will curb your creativity, in actual fact, you’ll find your time and process after the pre-writing stage streamlined by taking the time at this stage.

As you develop your outline, you should add levels of detail. Normally, a three level outline, indicating three levels of detail, is sufficient to structure a text properly. Note that once this outline has been created, perhaps with the help of using a card system or another of your organising tools, the work of writing text for every respective level of the outline is straightforward and in some sense the text is already compiled.

The organisation of your text should be logical, which implies that it has to have a coherent order that makes sense to the reader. Furthermore, the organisation of material has to do more than merely communicate information. It must also attract and retain the reader’s attention.

Technical writing as an example

A lot of technical writing follows a traditional arrangement of introduction, history, literature review, results, discussion and conclusion. This is a safe and simple way of writing but risks becoming an obstacle to the reader’s enthusiasm since most readers want new information, new findings and results as soon as possible. Another traditional assumption about organisation is that ‘logical’ organisation equates to ‘chronological’ organisation. Obviously, this is not always the case and organising the whole text in chronological order will not necessarily create an effective text.

Consequently, the organisation of your text must be both attractive and useful. Again, as always, it is the reader’s situation that should guide your decisions as a writer about the structure of your text. Naturally, the topic of the text matters too. If your text describes a process or the order of manufacturing a product, then there is often a clear organisation to follow already.

However, there are also other potentially effective structures for technical and engineering oriented texts. One possible choice a writer faces will be:

  • whether the information works best by being structured around comparing central ideas (a dialectical structure),
  • or whether the material works best in a structure that explores different possible themes in the material (a thematic structure).

Another recurring decision for writers is whether the text begins with the specific and ends with the general or if it moves in the opposite direction from the general to the specific.