A short essay is not the same as a long essay. A presentation is different too. So is a dissertation.
That means your preparations need to vary. How you approach each assignment is important.
Outlines are a great way to build an idea of what you want to produce. Here are some brief notes on how your outlines could differ, depending on which type of coursework you are working on.
Post-It Outline. One way to prepare that essay. (photo by anselm23)
Start with bullet points of the major arguments you wish to make. If you have too many ideas, either condense them into themes or brutally remove all but the very best. Your main tasks are a clear focus and awareness of key points.
Be aware of brevity needed in such a short space and plan accordingly. There’s no need to outline with the aim to cover every possible base. Highlight your most important areas with one or two clear examples.
Work from there and continue working concisely and to the point. When you’re getting too detailed, it’s time to scale back.
This essay contains more room to explore. Most essays tend to come under the ‘long’ description, so stay focused. It’s easy to ramble and move away from the question under discussion.
An outline allows you to stay on track and on message.
Ensure each bullet point you make is related to addressing the question. At each stage of the outlining, refer back to the question.
For every major argument you wish to tackle, give sub-headings that relate to proof, examples, counter-arguments (and how you’re dealing with them), quotations and references, and key descriptions of topics and themes.
You’re dealing with more than text here. You’ve got your voice, use of technology and slides, interacting with an audience, and so on.
In terms of outline, you need to prepare for all these things. That means a sharp eye on admin and peripheral issues. Your initial outline must cover use of equipment, size and layout of room, handouts, software use, Internet availability, and so on. While none of this is about your actual subject, it’s all relevant to the way you’re conducting yourself. Best assess the situation early, rather than five minutes before you’re due on stage!
As for content, think like you should a short essay. Your main aim is usually to highlight major arguments and workings as effectively as possible. Alternatively, you might be discussing an experiment or some findings you’ve made. All these examples require bold points and clear detail.
If you need a vague outline to play with, pick a start, middle and ending. In other words, introduce, elaborate (tell stories), and conclude. You may also like to quote something in keeping with your presentation at the beginning in order to set the scene.
Assuming you have agreed a dissertation topic, the most important initial outline is the structure. In what order will you present the themes and arguments? Work out the flow of the dissertation before anything else. Each part should follow on from what has come beforehand.
Spend considerable time outlining for your dissertation. It’s worthy of a post in itself, because a dissertation outline is far more detailed than that of a single essay.
Thankfully, in finding a topic, you should have developed some form of basic outline as part of the process.
Practical work & experiments
First off, develop a plan of action and a rough order of play. What needs doing, how should you prepare, and why are you doing this?
Next, explain what comes afterwards and what you’re going to do with your results and outcomes. If you are being assessed for a written element of this work, make another outline plan for that subsequent assignment.
Seminars & weekly reading
Advance outlines work for some students. Think of it like a timetable without rigid times. The timetabling aspect can come later. What matters in your outline is getting to grips with what you want to know at the end of your week, the books and papers you have earmarked, the questions you want to cover before, during and after seminar sessions, and any problems you may encounter.
You may have a better way to prepare for your regular work. If so, great. If not, see if an outline helps get you closer to the work at hand.
For some, a list is enough. For others, a strict timetable is required. Whatever the case, you can outline anything, so give it a go no matter how small your project is.
Are you a keen outliner? Share your outlining tips in the comments below.