19. Organizing with an outline

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Instructions for Lesson 19

1. Read this page. It should help you to plan your research report.

2. Try Hacker's exercises on thesis statements.

3. Begin to organize your data for your research report. You should complete the "O" in your COW by Lesson 20. 


Left: detail from an ancient Greek statue known as "the calf bearer." An ancient Greek remembers his cow.


Module 1

1: Orientation  
2: Goals   

Module 2

  3: Euthyphro  
     4: The Library
 5: The Apology   
    6: Citation   
    7: Crito
    8: Phaedo  
    9: Exam Prep   
10: Plato Exam

Module 3

11: Research Project 
12: Research 101   
13: Books   
14: the Librarian   
15: the Web   
16: conferences  
17: Joy of Research 
18: Reasoning 

Module 4

19: Outlines 
20: Review the Plan:
21: Language 
22: Dr E's Grammar
23: Peer Review  
24: Hit Parade 

Module 5

25: About the Exam
26: Mock Final 
27: Exam Prep
28: Graduation 



1. Organize for reader-friendliness
some basic forms

In academia, and in the professional world in general, readers don't have time to waste. They don't want oversimplification, but they do want as much clarity as possible. Our job as writers is to make the reading experience as easy as it can be, given the difficulty of the subject matter. We can save our readers time by starting from a thesis statement (or as Dr. E called it, a "claim") near the beginning of the essay, following it with an introductory essay map ("In this essay I will cover A, B, C and D."), and then providing transitional cue words to flag all of the main parts of the essay ("First. . . Second . . . Third. . . Finally. . . In conclusion. . ."). These elements make your essay's organization obvious so that that your readers don't have to puzzle over your meaning.

Already in this course, we have discussed a couple of different ways to organize reports.

We discussed the basics when we first met the COW, as we prepared for the Plato exam. There, we said that academic writing is organized logically--not chronologically and not descriptively--and we described the basic three-part essay formula for introduction (with thesis statement), body paragraphs, and conclusion. Dr G's Five-Step Method for Essay Writing illustrated this form in detail. A "fill-in-the-blanks" skeleton for this general form might look like this:

This report addresses the research question: _________________.
This is an important question because _____________ and ___________ and ___________.
The answer, I argue, is my thesis statement that _____________________.
In this report, I will attempt to prove this thesis by showing _"A"_ and _"B"_ and _"C"_.

Body sections presenting the evidence with source citations
Body I. All about "A" : provide evidence from A1, A2, A3
Body I. All about "B" : provide evidence from B1, B2, B3
Body I. All about "C" : provide evidence from C1, C2, C3

A significant counter-argument to my thesis is _______________.
However, I disagree with this counter-argument because _______ and ________.

In conclusion, this report has attempted to prove the thesis that _____________
I should point out that further questions remain, such as ____ and ____ and _____
The practical application of this thesis is that __________

Works Cited.

For primary or scientific research reports, there's a different standard form for essay organization. We described it back in Lesson 12 in Research 101, and in Lesson 14, in TC3 librarian Barbara Kobritz' guest lecture. In this science essay formula, the writer: (a) describes the research question, (b) describes the methodology that will be used to answer the question, (c) describes the data, (d) draws conclusions from the data, (e) describes issues that remain unanswered, and (f) provides a list of references or works cited, (g) as well as a summary abstract. This is a rigorous, state-of-the-art academic model for research papers. We saw a published example in Underage college students' drinking behavior.

Other basic essay formulas exist, but I don't recommend them because they are much less commonly used. Our clarity tends to diminish as we stray from well-recognized forms of organization.

2. What's your thesis?
try Hacker's exercises below to clarify your focus

The key to organizing your COW is your thesis statement. This is a one-sentence summary of your claim; it will give conceptual unity to your report. What debatable statement are you going to argue? What claim are you going to make?

Hacker covers thesis statements, and how to support them, in A Pocket Style Manual at section 28 (Hacker 113-115). You can clarify your thinking about thesis statements not only by reviewing her book but also by visiting her web site and trying her online research exercises. From her research exercises page, click on the area "MLA" and then to the right click on "Thesis statements in MLA papers." You will be asked to sign in on the web site by providing your name and your instructor's email address. For instructor's email here use gutchess@englishare.net.

3. Organizing techniques: grouping and outlining 

Techniques for organizing research data include grouping and outlining. If you choose grouping, follow it up by outlining. Grouping can be very helpful when you don't know where to start, but outlining ultimately produces a much more fully developed (and hence more useful) plan. A written outline for your research report will be due in Lesson 20. (See the assignment in today's lesson.)

Group the records. Grouping is recommended if we are feeling a little "lost" or overwhelmed by our research, if we haven't formed a clear thesis statement, or if we simply don't know where to begin to sort through the piles of research data that we have accumulated. Dr. G demonstrated this grouping technique already in Lesson 9 when he modeled how to prepare for the terrifying Plato exam. At that time, he presented a five-step method for essay writing: list, group, write, conclude, introduce. When he organized his essay, he listed the main points from his notes; then he grouped the items on the list, putting like with like, until most of the items in the list had been grouped. Arranging the groups in an order that seemed sensible then gave him the rough plan for his essay on Socrates as a teacher.

To group your research data, re-read your journal and skim back through any print outs or emails of sources that you have collected. Sort the material into at least three to five groups. You can make the groups on computer using "cut and paste" techniques to list and then rearrange words on a page. You can also make groups of hard copy texts by using colored highlighters to color-code data. Grouping can work very well simply by sorting the data physically by hand. 

I like to think of the records to be sorted as if they were folders to be filed in a five-drawer filing cabinet: which papers should go in the top drawer? which ones should go in the second drawer? which ones in the third drawer? and so on. When all of the papers have been put into the cabinet, then look at each file drawer, one at a time, and organize the drawer front to back Within each drawer, which folder should come first? which should come second? and so on. Arrange and rearrange the piles until the order makes the most sense to you. The physical act of sorting records focuses our attention on the activity and develops our understanding of how our sources relate to one another. This technique may sound a bit crude, but most of the time it really works, because a very large part of the human brain is devoted to hand/eye coordination. Remember the homunculus man?

Outline the data. Outlining tends to work well when we have a general plan for our report already in mind. Let's say that our research question is: should the USA undertake manned space flights to Mars? Let's say further that, from our reading on this subject, we think there are three main issues involved in the question: practicality (can it be done?), costs (how much will it cost?), and benefits (what are the potential rewards?). This general level of understanding allows us to start a rough or preliminary outline: I introduction, II practicality, III costs, IV benefits, and V conclusion. To turn this plan into a detailed, finished outline, we can review the source information that we have collected and categorize each piece of evidence under the relevant outline heading.

We should keep the preliminary outline tentative, however. It may be incorrect or misdirected. If it turns out that many of our Mars sources are about practicality, and few of them are about costs or benefits, then probably we should narrow our research question. Instead of asking "should the USA go to Mars?" we should ask the narrower and more specific question: "how practical is it for the USA to go to Mars?" And if we have enough sources on an even-narrower subject, then we should narrow our research question even further. For example, if we have several good sources that address the problem of human adaptability to prolonged space flight, we should narrow our research question to "can the human body endure missions to Mars?" As a general rule in academic writing, narrow the focus whenever possible. The narrower the focus, the better the report. Although a popular magazine article on a proposed Mars program might favor a broad approach to attract lots of readers ("should we go?"), academic writing very clearly favors much more narrowed questions (such as "how much exposure to cosmic radiation can the human body safely endure?" or "how can we estimate the amount of cosmic radiation that an astronaut will be likely to encounter on a mission to Mars?").

4. Outline articles
to see how they were organized
the outline is a powerful tool of analysis

What should an outline look like? Outline a well-written article, and you will get a good idea or at least a good example. Outlining an article is a great way to uncover its underlying organization and research content.

Please read the following model articles and the analysis that is made of them on this page.

Take a quick look at a draft English 101 research report that Dr. E once modeled for her students, "Undeveloped Streamsides: Corridors of Life." Dr. G. has marked up Dr. E's text to show its parts: the background or research question, the introduction with thesis statement, the body arguments, and the conclusion. As the outlining helps to show, Dr. E's thesis is that streamsides should be preserved. The body segments are arguments for preservation: (1) because streamsides are wildlife corridors, (2) because streamsides are biodiverse corridors, (3) because streamsides are cleansers of pollution, (4) because streamsides are greenspace, and (5) because a place like Dryden Lake trail deserves protection. Dr. E provides sources as evidence under each of these arguments. Dr. G's outlining highlights both her arguments and her evidence. Including this "evidence" level in the outline shows at a glance what the stronger and weaker arguments are: for example, in Dr. E's report, the biodiversity argument is better supported than the greenspace argument, as multiple sources are cited under biodiversity but only one source is cited under greenspace.

For an excellent student research report, read Angela Daly's "A Call to Action" on Diana Hacker's web site; click on "model papers."

An outline of Daly's report shows not only how well organized her report is but also how carefully it has been researched. (Daly's paper was written several years ago when cell phones on the road were relatively new, so extensive academic and professional studies bearing on the issue were not yet available.) Here's Dr. G's outline of Daly's report:

Outline of Daly,
"A Call to Action: Regulate Use of Cell Phones on the Road"

I. Statement of the problem: "why is regulation needed?"

a. thesis: regulation is needed because drivers are seriously impaired and existing laws are insufficient

(this thesis also provides a clear "essay map" showing the two subtopics to be discussed in the essay)

II. Argument 1: drivers are impaired

a. Popular evidence: news and internet descriptions of 3 different accidents (human interest serves as a hook to get reader attention)

b. Expert testimony from Bents, public opinion from Farmer's Insurance, cartoon

c. Academic/scientific research

1. research report 1: Redelmeir in New England Journal of Medicine

2. research report 2: Violanti's Oklahoma study

III. Argument 2: existing laws are insufficient

a. Popular evidence: news and internet sources about penalties imposed in 3 different cases

b. special laws are not unusual (no sources)

c. academic source noting that 20 countries plus Suffolk County have laws against driving while phoning

d. local laws would be only a patchwork solution (per Verizon phone company)

e. academic source noting the beneficial results after Japanese law banned cell phoning in cars

f. 2 trade association sources indicating that legislative action should be taken

IV. Conclusion: state legislatures must begin to take this problem seriously

Although "A Call to Action" is aimed at an audience of politicians, rather than an academic audience, its arguments are well organized and fairly well supported with specific sources. It is a standard argument paper in that it moves from a claim (thesis), through premises (arguments) with supporting evidence, to a conclusion.

For comparison, look on Hacker's site at Levi's "Cell Phones in the Hands of Drivers." Then, also from Hacker's site, see Levi's outline in preparation for writing his report . One serious criticism of Levy's outline (from Dr. G's point of view) is that it is not specific enough. It does not get down to the level of evidence or the particular sources that will be used to support each argument. For best results in your own writing. spell out three levels of detail in your outline:

1. Thesis statement.

2. Arguments that will be used to support the thesis.

3. Evidence or source information that will be incorporated under each argument. List the specific sources that you have.

For example, in the Daly outline above:

Thesis statement: regulation is needed

First argument: drivers are impaired

First source under first argument death of Morgan Pena (first of three accidents to be discussed)

Second source under first argument, etc.

When you have outlined your research project so that you have these three levels of detail (thesis statement, arguments, evidence), you are almost ready to write. The one further step is troubleshooting your plan. Are your arguments persuasive in proving your thesis? [Recall Dr. E's lecture on reasoning.] Is your evidence satisfactory to support your arguments? Lesson 20 will give additional help in answering those questions.

Assignment due in Lesson 20: Organize your research data and write a proposed three-level outline of your draft research report. 

Three-level outlining is discussed in the readings document for Lesson 19 (you can use the outline of Daly's report as a model), and it's discussed further in the lecture for Lesson 20.  

   + LEVEL 1 states the THESIS. The thesis must be a debatable claim, not a truism, so there should be some controversy or doubt about it. The claim needs to be narrow enough so that it can be dealt with adequately in an 8-page paper.
  ++LEVEL 2 presents the proposed ARGUMENTS that will be offered to support the claim. Be sure the arguments are statements n the form of complete sentences.
+++LEVEL 3 lists the proposed EVIDENCE that will be offered to support each argument. If you do not list each source individually in level 3, at least identify the number and quality of the sources that you have for each argument.  By "quality" I mean whether the sources are academic, professional, or popular. 

From a completed outline, you should be able to see at a glance whether or not you have enough good evidence to support each of your proposed arguments. If the proof is light, then look for additional evidence or change the argument.

Readings for Lesson 20: In Lesson 20 we will analyze some student research papers. Read, from "model papers" on Hacker's web site, Aaron Lund's "Preserving Yellowstone's Winter Wilderness" and Rekha Sanghvi's "Preserving Winter Access: Snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park."  

Also read Student A's "Prenatal Gene Therapy" and Student B's "Stem Cell Research/Cloning." These draft research reports are representative (not the best or worst) of those that Dr. G' has received in English 101 at TC3.



"O" takes us from "C" to "W." Time spent on "O" saves time on "W" and avoids monstrous BULL (image left, barely muzzled). Lessons 19 and 20 are all about "O."

































You may need to download and install Macromedia's Flash PlayerTM to run the exercises on Hacker's web site. Use the link on Hacker's site for the download.









Left: now it's time to squeeze the olives . How will we package the oil?
















A game of cleaning up your office. . .









gutchess@englishare.net                    Academic writing home page                    Gary Gutchess 2003