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HomeRants > Goodbye documents, hello objects! > Outlining electronically > How going electronic changes our idea of outlining



Situating the outline in theory

Going beyond the traditional model

Outlining is a sociable activity

How going electronic changes our idea of outlining

(Adapted from Chapter 1, A Little Context, in Outlining Goes Electronic).

Electronic outlining software helps writers incorporate structural analysis and construction into the very process of writing. That's a new idea of outlining.

Automating a constellation of activities that were difficult to do on paper, the software shifts attention from product to process, makes that process easier to carry out, and allows writers to articulate their understanding of the many activities involved, while also facilitating a form of collaboration that would not have been possible on paper.

Outlining on the computer rather than on paper, you can create a much more visible hierarchy, not cramped by handwriting, tiny labels, and irregular indentation. And you investigate it immediately by changing an item's level, phrasing, or position in sequence without recopying the rest of the outline, scribbling over, or drawing arrows.

You see the effect of any organizational change instantly.

The sheer convenience encourages a more thorough exploration of the evolving structure as you discover new ideas, revise parts of the organization, try out some writing, and go back to the subject-matter expert, documents, or Internet to do more research.

Done by an individual in this way, electronic outlining becomes central to the writing process, instead of an annoying document required by some high school teacher.

Electronic outlining becomes a way of viewing the material, getting a structural perspective, and thereby developing a more coherent interpretation.

When used in the workplace or classroom to focus and record an ongoing conversation, outlining software also encourages group collaboration in brainstorming, researching, organizing, and writing. The electronic nature of the medium lets a group record, change, debate, and review more ideas than they could handle on a blackboard or flipchart.

More important, electronic outlining can act as a sort of grown-up Lego™ set, representing and encouraging the thinking process by allowing participants to manipulate the ideas visually, re-ordering, re-sequencing, adding or subtracting, working up from the bottom, or drilling down from the top.

Outlining software, then, acts to externalize the process of structural revision, providing a temporary outline that represents "what we thought a minute ago," allowing participants to stand apart and carry on a conversation with their earlier positions.

In this way, the software brings our internal conversation into the open. The software helps participants "see" that they are, together, constructing a collective understanding, using the emerging outline as a placeholder for previous thoughts, another participant in the social construction of knowledge.

Related articles:

A history of outlining: From papyrus to electrons (PDF 699K, 104 pages, 12 minutes at 56K)

STOP: light on the history of outlining

How electronic outlining can help you create online materials

Making your writing visible--with electronic outlining

Extending the collaborative conversation
 --with electronic outlining (PDF, 206K,
4 minutes at 56K)


Situating the outline in theory

Electronic outlining makes the old critique of outlines by the process movement obsolete.

In the 1970's and 1980's, scholarship on the pedagogy of arrangement tended to focus on the development of structure, rather than on outlining as a set of useful activities. Scholars argued that a concern for structure could take us beyond the patterns-of-development approach and contribute to the process (Coe, 1987; Enos, 1985; Hartwell, 1979; Knoblauch & Brannon, 1984; Olsen, 1989; Podis, 1980, Podis & Podis, 1990).

Wary of offering an "outline" as a static arrangement promising students control over material, Podis and Podis (1990) even stressed their own anxiety, indecision, hemming and hawing, their own experience of being out of control, as they arranged their essay on arrangement.

In investigating the way writers plan their work, Hayes & Flower (1980) and Kaufer, Fleming, Werner, & Sinsheimer-Weeks. (1986) suggested that after mentally mulling over the subject, a writer might write down a plan in an outline form.

But Flower & Hayes (1980, 1981a, 1981b) criticized the outline as a product-based plan, the kind of plan that occurs "when the composing process is governed by a concern for the form of the finished product" (1981b, p. 49), and suggested that the difficulty of producing a formal outline could slow the writer down.

In 1984 they drew a distinction between fragmentary, vague, and incomplete plans for writing, which they saw as useful, and "more formal, logical, and limited 'plans,' associated with outlines and notes" (1984, p. 124).

Stotsky (1990) pointed out that in much research on planning, the ideas of goals, plans, and strategies were conflated or left astonishingly vague. She concluded: "It is not clear what kind of plans the process of planning results in or how plans and goals may be distinguished from one another, if indeed they are distinct entities" (p. 42). She noted how practitioners applied theory and found similar confusion.

Researchers on the composing process had also found that writers contemplating a short piece rarely outline (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1987; Emig, 1971; Hillocks, 1986; Mischel, 1974; Perl, 1979; Pianko, 1979; Stallard, 1974).

But writers facing a longer or more complex document often do create an outline (Emig, 1971; Kellogg, 1988, 1994; Kulthau, 1988; McCarthy, 1985; Nelson, 1992; Sommers & McQuade, 1984; Stein, 1990; Taylor & Beach, 1984).

But, as Stotsky (1990) says, "The practice of formal outlining recommended in traditional texts may be inhibiting" (p. 46).

Indeed, the traditional model presented an outline as a single document, not as a process--a document decorated with typographical codes borrowed from mathematics and Latin, arranged in nested sequences that few students comprehend; a document, moreover, that acts as a rigid blueprint the student must follow when drafting, with any variations (or new ideas) being punished by the teacher as a violation of contract.

In other words, the real purpose of outlining--to develop a meaningful structure for the document--became lost amid the use of

  • Paper as the medium (which made changing anything difficult). In fact, Daiute (1985) pinpointed the paper medium as a major obstacle to the formal outlining recommended universally by teachers and textbooks from the 1930's through the 1960's.
  • Pens or typewriters as the tools (which afforded few ways of indicating hierarchy other than indentation and the extremely arbitrary typographical codes indicating levels and sequences)
  • A pedagogy favoring forms over process, and stressing individual work (one student, one outline) over group work.

Going beyond the traditional model

Influenced by cognitive psychologists' distinction between thinking and writing (Newell & Simon, 1972; Schank & Abelson, 1977), writing researchers have continued to consider an outline as a written-down thought rather than viewing the process of outlining as a way of thinking. Stotsky (1990) points out, "The interaction between thought and written language during the planning process may be the critical activity that determines the coherence of the first draft" (p. 49). She suggests a more intimate relationship between composing and drafting than cognitivists acknowledged, and, following Vygotsky, she stresses that as writers think verbally, they move back and forth "between thought and visible (or audible) language" (Stotsky, 1990, p. 54).

In my experience, outlining electronically allows individuals and groups to think aloud, record their thoughts onscreen, analyze those thoughts as if they came from an "other," and collectively come to a new understanding.

Outlining software also blurs old distinctions between planning, researching, and drafting.

Although not directly dealing with outlines, most studies in the last 25 years have shown that the various processes involved in writing occur again and again, recursively overlapping, and frequently intersecting with each other (Beaugrande, 1984; Hult & Harris, 1987; Kellogg, 1994; Kennedy, 1985; Kostelnick, 1989a; McCutchen, 1986; Moberg, 1986; Schwartz, 1985).

What's odd is that outlining gets mentioned so rarely in this discussion.

Kellogg (1994) noted that "Research on outlining is limited" (p. 124). Reviewing observational and field research on prewriting, he says,

"The only strong, positive effect is the correlation between outlining and productivity. The studies that yielded null or negative results all suffer from low statistical power, using in most cases only a handful of participants" (p. 125).
To correct this gap in the research, Kellogg undertook a number of surveys and experiments.
  •  In interviewing science and engineering faculty he found that written outlining had a significant correlation with productivity (Kellogg, 1986, 1994).
  • In fact, in another study, Kellogg (1988) showed that writers who had prepared an outline mentally or in writing were able to reduce attentional overload, when drafting, so they could concentrate substantially more on translating their ideas from the plan to written form, as Murray (1985) had suggested.

Kellogg concluded that for long documents an external outline (written, not mental) would be critical, as Stotsky (1990) also argued.

Looking back over the same decades of research as Kellogg does, Walvoord et al. (1995) say,

"In this body of research, outlining is either absent, conflated with other categories, classified in such a way as to obscure its unique features, specifically omitted from powerful writing processes, or negatively associated with linear or unproductive composing practices" (p. 393).
They point out that Flower & Hayes (1977) attacked outlines as mere products, ignored their position as bridges between planning and writing, dismissed outlines as encouraging writers to "paint by numbers--to simply fill in the blanks" (p. 457), and condemned them as crutches and a straitjackets.

Hillocks (1986) also dismissed such textbook mantras as "formulate a thesis, develop an outline, and write" (p. 27). Walvoord et al. (1995) point out

"But now that the research so richly suggests the fluidity, complexity, and interconnectedness of writing processes and forms, it is time to unhitch the outline from its narrow textbook definition to explore how students actually use it, and to reconsider it in that context" (p. 394).

In their study of college students' development of complex papers in several disciplines, Walvoord et al. (1995) found that outlining appeared to be:
 "A powerful strategy that cut across, participated in, and transcended individual processes such as planning or organizing [and served] multiple functions across a broad span of the writing process" (p. 418).

Certainly, in my own experience, electronic outlining, as a process, evolves cyclically, almost randomly, affecting and strengthening all three activities--researching, organizing, and writing.

Outlining is a sociable activity

Just as the move to word processing encouraged and made more visible the social nature of writing (Costanzo, 1994; Duin & Hansen, 1994; Eldred, 1989; Hawisher, 1994; Humphrey, 1987; Rodrigues & Rodrigues, 1986), electronic outlining encourages a social perspective.

Duin & Hansen (1994) define the social perspective this way:

Social interaction can be seen as the mechanism for the process of social construction, the means by which individuals cooperate to construct and interpret reality, and a means by which individuals become literate.... The basic idea of social construction is that groups of people, bound by shared experiences or interests, build meaning through an ongoing process of communication, interpretation, and negotiation. Facts, beliefs, truth itself result from a social process of conversation and consensus building. (pp. 90-91)
Because of rhetorical concerns with audience, much discussion focuses on the conversation between the writer and the reader, as suggested by Bakhtin (1981, 1986), Bakhtin & Volosinov (1986), and Volosinov (1973).

But with the increase of group writing, more scholars recognize that writing itself can be done collaboratively, as an extended conversation (Duin & Hansen, 1994; Ede & Lunsford, 1990). Unfortunately, few researchers have explored electronic outlining within this context.

Similarly, the electronic tools enabling groups to create hypertexts together foster the social construction of knowledge and text (Adelson & Jordan, 1992; Irish & Trigg, 1989), but, as Johnson-Eilola (1994) points out, most hypertext theorists have either disregarded the interplay of technology and social practice, or focused too exclusively on the technology (see also Hawisher, 1989, Kaplan, 1991).

Johnson-Eilola (1994) remarks, "The social aspects of the construction of knowledge are not always visible to the participants" (p. 214).

I argue that electronic outlining, used in the workplace and classroom, encourages social interaction as a group works out "what it knows," and makes that process visible.

In the context of the extensive scholarship on writing, then, outlining as an activity remains weakly theorized, and despite increased interest in word processing and hypertext, outlining on the computer has not been seriously explored for its full capabilities. Farkas (1995) called for more study of electronic outlining because he saw it as a valuable tool.

In my book, Outlining Goes Electronic, I provide some indication of the way electronic outlining works in industry and in the classroom as a device for thinking, as a facilitator of collaboration, and as an eye-opening representation of the social construction that goes on during collaborative writing.

Citations from A bibliography of outlining.







































Buy the book from Amazon:
Outlining Goes Electronic,
by Jonathan Price
Volume 9 in the series Contemporary Studies in Technical Communication, from the Association of Teachers of Technical Writing,
Ablex, 1999
177 pages
ISBN 1-56750-379-9


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