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HomeRants > Goodbye documents, hello objects! > Outlining electronically > A new model of outlining



Our tools shape our shared experience

Two models of outlining

What a difference the medium makes!

The impact of the medium

A brief theory of outlining

A new model of outlining

(Excerpt from Chapter 6, Outlining Goes Electronic.)

Everyone agrees structure is important, though few care to define what they mean by that.

Somehow, we sense, the structure of a document indicates what the author imagines the audience may want to know first, second, and third, what may be most important to them, or less so, and what sequence of topics may be most meaningful to them.

Structure allows fast access, or forestalls it; encourages people to move through the document with confidence, or discourages them from reading more. Structure can be inviting, or off-putting.

Overall, the structure makes the material meaningful, memorable, and usable.

So rhetoricians, composition teachers, and instructors of technical communication have all insisted that their students consider a series of different structures as they develop their material, switching topics around, deleting some, adding others, in order to settle on the most effective structure for a particular document, in a particular situation.

The mechanism most commonly recommended for this important work is the outline.

But, although these teachers and textbook authors rarely want to admit it, the medium of paper has made outlining difficult, tedious, and mechanical.

And, without most people recognizing it, that medium has also shaped their conception of the times when one ought to outline, the product of that work, and the relationship between the outline and other documents, such as notes, drafts, and revisions.

This nexus of ideas, I believe, limited the benefits writers got out of outlining. Hence, student and adult writers developed resentments, leading to resistance or downright refusal to do anything but the most trivial outlines.

And, in response, the textbook authors have come up with a series of somewhat specious arguments in favor of creating a paper outline, based on its supposed logic, practicality, and malleability, as a writer moves toward a fuller vision of the material.

But electronic outlining--creating an outline on the computer and working with it onscreen-- has now been widely available for almost twenty years. Noticed and used more by professional writers than by teachers or students, this tool allows us a new understanding of outlining, and, ultimately, of structure.

In business and government, technical writing teams, overwhelmed by the volume of work to be done, have turned to many forms of electronic document creation and management, including the electronic outliner.

Perhaps such software appeals more to us because we generally have to write several full-length books at once, under extremely tight deadlines, with changing information, and many partners at our side.

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)

A rhetoric of objects

Complexity theory as a way of understanding the Web

Structuring complex interactive information


Our tools shape our shared experience

Whenever a group encounters difficulty achieving its aims with one set of tools and media, it seems, some members may cast about for new tools, new media. But changes in tools and media often enable--or force--this group of pioneers to change the way they interact when they work together to create a document that reflects some mutual understanding.

And when any technology--whether note cards, theme paper, or electronic outlining software--becomes widely available, it also becomes a visible symbol, or working metaphor, that all members of the community can use to extend their thinking about the way they build meaning together.

  • For instance, Derrida (1973, 1981, 1986) and Barthes (1974, 1982, 1984) recognized intertextuality, but hypertext displays it.
  • Social constructionists saw how a discipline develops as intertext, and how even one person's work is, as Bakhtin (1981, 1989) noted, a social process.

But new tools such as email, web sites, document management software, hypertext editors, word processing, and electronic outlining allow more people to work together more visibly, and because of that very visibility, these new tools can, with a little help, accelerate people's thinking about the social nature of the way we create meaning together.

New tools often allow us to rethink familiar activities, because we can do some aspects of the activities somewhat more effectively, though differently. The change in perspective may also help us see more clearly the original purposes, and, with a little luck, discover new work we can accomplish, tasks we may never have imagined before.

But at the same time that new tools and media are adopted by one part of the discourse community as described by Bizzell (1982), Faigley (1985), and Porter, (1986), another group usually remains unconvinced, devoted to earlier media, and, even if they must use some of the new technology, they continue to use concepts developed from the activities and artifacts of the earlier medium.

With some textbooks, I believe, we see the authors in that odd situation, using word processing to produce the books, but still thinking with concepts that reflect paper, as a medium. For instance, many of the authors think in terms of a series of stages, and discrete documents, such as notes, outline, first draft, final draft, whereas electronically, a single file may contain an outline view, notes that are hidden or revealed, as necessary, and a word processing view of the full text.

The school model of outlining represents a kind of cultural lock-in (Arthur, 1990, 1996), leading even open-minded experimenters with hypertext or the World Wide Web to hesitate before returning to that scene of teenage resentments, the outline.

Here, we have looked at outlining critically, and gradually discerned two models of outlining, based on the medium in which one works--paper or electrons. Let me summarize the differences in tabular form, then draw out the implications, as I see them. In the table, I contrast the way the two models conceptualize attributes of the outline itself, and the process of outlining.

Two models of outlining


Paper Model


Electronic Model


The Outline Itself




The outline is a paper document.

The outline is an electronic file, capable of being stored for reuse, printed on paper, or reworked on the fly (in the computerís memory).



The outline is the result of research and thought.

The outline is a snapshot of an ongoing process, preserving and encouraging further thinking about the research.



The outline is a document that is distinct from notes and drafts.

The outline offers one view into the file, which is a single locus for note-taking, planning, and drafting (an alternate to the layout, text, and hypertext views).



The outline is a fixed blueprint or map for a future draft.

The outline is an evolving structure within which the draft is already growing, in bits and pieces; not closed, final, or finished, just abandoned at some point.



The outline presents fixed hierarchy and sequence of topics.

The outline shows the current status of an evolving hierarchy and sequence of topics.



The outline depends on a limited number of formats to distinguish levels (labels, indentation, occasionally capitalization and size); formatting allows structure to be deduced, if done carefully enough by the writer.


The outlining software uses whole range of word-processing formats to give each level a distinct look; automatically dramatizes the structure, visually.


Labeling generally indicates that the topics must appear in a sequence (1, 2, 3; a, b, c).

Bullets and non-sequential labeling are possible for topics that are simply options, or alternatives, and do not have to appear in a particular order.



The outline is intended for the use of the writer (and perhaps a teacher, monitoring progress).  No one else will see it.

The outline is intended for the use of the writer (or writing team) and, as a menu system or electronic table of contents, for end users.



The outline is a personal tool, allowing for limited consideration of alternate structures, then frozen, as a blueprint for the draft.


The outline is a focal point for extended internal considering and collaborative conversation with other people.


Making an outline saves time and money, because it keeps the writer on track when drafting the actual document.

Making an outline is a continuous process that improves the quality of the document for the end user, and, incidentally, saves the writer time, particularly toward the end of a hectic project, when the extensive reviews pay off in fewer requests for structural change.



The outline document may take one of various forms, or a sequence of them (scratch notes, nonlinear diagrams, lists, numbered lists, preliminary outline, working outline, sentence outline, paragraph outline)

The outline tends to evolve from a list to a hierarchy with many levels, each with its own sequencing; the topics become headings, and the lower levels become sentences, then paragraphs, within the same file. The outline is always a working document..



The first outline, seen artistically, is a rough sketch, a tentative plan that helps us distinguish structure because it stands out visually, compared to running text.


The outline is always a work in progress, and like an artistís sketch, exposes key aspects of the composition through color, position, and format.


The outline acquires the appearance of depth, becoming a three-dimensional model we can shape and then use when we write the draft.

The outlining tool lets you move up and down, and, through showing what was hidden, in.  These three dimensions give the electronic outline a feeling of depth like that of a hypertext Help system or CD-ROM, in which we move through the environment.



The outline is a scaffolding for the building to come (the draft), or bones for a body to emerge around them.

The outline may act as a menu system by which users navigate through the material; in that sense, some users imagine the menu system as a kind of three-dimensional array through which they are moving. For the writer, the growing outline does sometime seem like a skeleton on which the organs hang, and around which the flesh of text grows.



The outline is a map, guiding the writer of the draft.

The outline acts as a series of maps of the material, allowing the writer to zoom in from a high-level view to a medium-level view to a closeup. At any level, the emerging outline helps the writer stay oriented.





Paper Model


Electronic Model


The Activities of Outlining




Consolidating what has been learned, during research.

Discovering meaning in what has been found so far, noticing gaps in our knowledge, using the structuring process as a way to learn.



Comparing the outline with the notes, to verify accuracy and completeness.

Opening and closing, showing and revealing notes to verify accuracy and completeness; also showing and hiding lower levels of headings, and partial drafts, for the same purposes.



Creating one final structure (a hierarchy and sequence of topics).

Continuously improving a structure (a hierarchy and sequence of topics).



Requiring no real writing, except to enforce parallelism, because the outline is considered ďjust a plan,Ē and not part of the final document.

Allowing, even requiring that the writer do real writing from the beginning, so that the headings make sense as a menu, and as a summary of their pages.



Revising by crossing out, inserting, drawing arrows, then recopying the entire outline to get a clean copy.

Revising without any recopying of the materials that have not been changed; because reformatting is automatic, and you always see a clean copy.



Applying logic, particularly the activities of division, grouping, and sequencing

Using the outline as a tool to represent our current understanding, allowing us to view that critically, and rethink it, or research the gaps in our knowledge.



Transforming a sketch, manipulating a basic shape, modifying parts, cutting away the unnecessary.

Directly manipulating the first list as it becomes a hierarchical shape, constantly modifying the parts and cutting away the unnecessary.



Growing together organically, to form a unified, living whole.

Constantly moving toward greater unity by eliminating discordant elements, conflicts, duplication, ambiguity; when placed in an electronic environment, the outline becomes hot, that is, interactive, because clicking a topic takes the user to a submenu or page of information.



Applying a limited set of activities (three or four, according to most authors), out of the many recognized as possible: identifying and making a list of topics, adding or deleting topics, moving topics, eliminating duplicate topics, classifying or grouping, dividing one topic into subtopics, subordinating some topics to others, sequencing, confirming completeness, rewriting to emphasize similarity, working on one layer at a time

Involves many overlapping and interacting activities, in many cycles: identifying and making a list of topics, adding or deleting topics, moving topics, annotating topics, deleting duplicate topics, dividing one topic into its components, creating a new topic out of the details, disassembling a set of subtopics, promoting a subtopic or demoting a topic, grouping, sequencing, rewriting to emphasize similarity and difference, rewriting to reveal structure, writing test passages, and drafts, verifying that similar topics have similar subtopics, confirming completeness.



Adding particular attention to activities that lead to an essay: including an introduction, starting with a thesis statement, ensuring that headings support the thesis, and including a conclusion.

Allowing any structure, including that of the formal essay, but not insisting on inserting an introduction, thesis, or conclusion into every document.



Tending to fix on a particular structure, and refine that, without extensive consideration of alternatives.


Involving constant comparison of various structures


Making a limited number of passes, due to the tedium of recopying.

Making countless versions; revising continuously, from the first note through the final draft.



Fixing the structure, so it is all open and revealed at once, making some comparisons difficult.

Through hiding and showing, the electronic outline allows movement through the structure at different levels, under different topics, and in different sequences.



Making a new outline as a diagnostic tool to analyze the structure of a draft.

Always offering an outline view, even during the final draft, because the outline is just another view of the same file as the draft, allowing constant comparison between structure and text



During the writing of the draft, if new ideas occur, they may be incorporated into the draft only, or force a new revision of the outline.


New ideas slip into the evolving outline whenever they occur, even during drafting or revising the draft.


To analyze the structure of a draft, another outline must be made.


To analyze the structure of a draft, the writer simply shifts to outline view.


Learning takes place before outlining; the outline serves to summarize that, or incorporate future thoughts.

Working on the outline is a way of learning the material, and interrogating oneís own earlier view of the structure, and therefore, the meaning.



The outline acts as a substitute for short-term memory, preserving the structure for analysis, reconsideration, and possibly another version of the outline, or, at any rate, for the next document (the draft).

The outline is a tool for talking to oneself and others about the material; a temporary artefact holding the individualís last thought, or the groupís last consensus, for analysis and improvement.



The outline reflects the writerís thoughts, belongs to the writer, retains the writerís individual signature.

When a group is outlining, the ideas become the property of the group, and individual contributions tend to lose their signatures.



When considered as an individual activity, the outlining process looks like problem-solving, or some other form of individual thinking, distanced from the influence of others (their thoughts, in summary, survive only in the note cards).


When considered as a group activity, the outlining process reflects the social construction of meaning.

What a difference the medium makes!

The school model is heavily, if unconsciously, influenced by the tradition of paper: index cards, typed sheets, stacks of notes. The assumption that one must use paper to outline encouraged authors to think of making an outline as a difficult but limited stage a writer had to go through, yielding a single discreet document that could act as a map to the essay as it was written.

With the arrival of word processing and electronic outlining software we can begin to look at outlining as an ongoing process involving a whole set of iterative, nonsequential, but overlapping activities, some of which have traditionally been done to prepare an outline, such as promoting or demoting topics, while others used to be considered distinctly different stages (researching, writing, revising), and still others were not even considered relevant to outlining (collaborative construction of meaning).

By contrast to the classic paper outline, the electronic outline, then, is always open, ready for further change, unfinished and full of potential. At the beginning of the outlining process, we may do more reading, and at the end, more tinkering with words, but we never stop either activity completely, at least not on a major project. We proceed by bits and pieces. We do a little research, we synthesize that, we write a little about it, we realize we need to do more reading, we edit the paragraph we wrote, we think...and so it goes. How illogical we are, and how holistic! We do not take the straight road to the final document, we meander. We do not go by stages, we cycle through different activities, day after day, gradually changing our emphasis as our ideas get clear, and we discover what we are doing.

The iterative nature of the process suggests that when outlining works, it is not an isolated act, with a discrete product, but is an important part of an ongoing writing process, linked to all the other aspects of that process. And with electronic outlining, all these activities operate in the same file, allowing us to shift in an instant from an activity focused on notes to an activity at the highest level, considering structure in the outline. In order to move the material from a simple list to a complete document, we constantly cycle through different views of the evolving file: the outline view, the text view, the page layout view, and the hypertext or linked view. Because our electronic tools allow such quick switching from one view to another, they also help us see the extent to which writing is a complex process, made up of so many sub-processes that interact so unpredictably with each other that we can never hope to describe all the activities that go into a single book, much less prescribe a particular sequence of activities for a writer to follow when creating an outline. At best we can regard outlining as part of an extended set of conversations.

Several conversations drive the onrushing flow of these activities.

  1. The first conversation is between the writer and his or her own artifact, the outline as it now stands, needing to be shaped by further thought; in this sense, the outline externalizes interior dialog.
  2. The second conversation draws in the documents and databases the writer has consulted, debated, argued with, and borrowed from.
  3. The third conversation is between the author, the emerging document, and its intended audiences, who, though absent, keep speaking up, raising questions, wondering, doubting, and generally provoking the writer to further effort.

When the outline appears in electronic form, it is just one view of a document that can also be looked at in unending scroll, as a word processing document, or in distinct pages, as a desktop publishing document, or again in a hierarchical outline, so we no longer seem to be looking at a single completed document, but rather a moment's snapshot, a brief recording or digest of the ongoing conversations.

In the workplace and the classroom, the electronic outline also dramatizes the social construction of knowledge, encouraging collaborative work among a team or class, foregrounding the processes of negotiation, problem-solving, reorganizing, and eventual agreement. As an artifact of these multiple ongoing conversations, then, the outline also acts as an object of contemplation, a temporary but material representation of the talk, allowing participants to step back for a moment, and reflect on the way in which they are all, jointly, participating in the creation of this shared document.

When we regard the outline in this way, we begin to see that each element in it--each heading, each section--functions as the collective writers' best attempt to answer a particular question, or set of questions from the various audiences. In addition, each element may send a message, as it were, to another part of the outline; the introduction to a chapter, for instance, presages the body, and the summary looks back to both. The document can be viewed as a hierarchy built out of these elements, and, similarly, any top level element can be seen as containing other elements, as its components. All headings at one level belong to that class of headings, and, in a formally designed document, each gets the same format as its peers, but each is also a distinct instance of the class, having its own data, or content. In all these ways, an electronic outline, particularly one with hypertext links within and without, is an object-oriented document, as a software engineer might describe it (Mazumdar et al., 1998; Price 1997a, 1997b, 1998). And when the document is presented electronically, the outline itself becomes a multi-level menu system, allowing users to traverse the material by various paths, interrogating the topic hierarchies and sequences, directing the conversation toward their own ends, creating their own meanings.

In large organizations we already see the creation and management of information moving in this direction, as software vendors perfect tools for flowcharting, color-coding and formatting the levels in a programmer's code so it looks like an outline, schematic diagramming, and visualization, as well as document building tools based on the Standard General Markup Language, or SGML, and its subset XML, which allow each team to create its own standard outline for a set of documents, displaying that template next to the document, in effect nudging the individual writers to observe the structural necessities imposed by the team's description of the ideal document of this type (in the document-type description, or DTD). By separating format from structure, these new electronic tools take outlining even farther from the "paper plan," and foreground the collaborative nature of the creation.

This sophisticated version of electronic outlining helps us understand structure in a new way--as an assemblage of message-sending objects in an evolving hierarchy, with each object having its own function in the virtual conversation for which the document acts as a continuous mediator. The structure of a document, then, can no longer can be considered a stable scaffolding. Viewed electronically, the emerging structure acts as a communicating system linking several societies, facilitating the complex social process of conversation (Price, 1997a, 1997b, 1998).

The impact of the medium

Each medium enables and encourages some activities, discourages others, and makes some almost impossible. As we work in the medium regularly, our common activities shape the types of documents that normally emerge, the ideas that we have about these documents, and the way we conceive of the rhetorical exchange and the process we have gone through. The electronic medium inherited a range of possible structuring activities but shifted the priorities, multiplied the number of passes, increased the interactions between activities exponentially. Similarly, certain design motifs continue, such as indentations and labels, but the rest of the formatting becomes visually more sophisticated, clarifying many aspects of structure that were not easy to spot before, and offering dramatic changes in what we see from moment to moment. We recognize traces of the idea of a document, but now it is more file than paper, so different attributes rise to the surface. The internal dialog becomes externalized in a new way, and other people join in. There is, then, no generic outlining, because medium is determinative in the definition.

We may pursue an idea through many media, but each process and each document emerges deeply stained by its own medium--and we humans seem to like it that way. Viewed in this light, the shift to a new medium and new tools--a new communication technology--is driven by a wide range of social, economic, and intellectual choices, but beneath all those decisions, I see a very human yearning for greater shared understanding.

A Brief Theory of Outlining

In order to reflect on our own activities as writers, students, and teachers, we need a rough theoretical model of outlining from which to argue our way forward. To help others clarify and articulate the issues I have raised, I offer these concluding remarks as a brief theory of outlining.

In the process of outlining we use an external medium to hammer out the structure of complex thought in verbal and visual form.

The outline itself is a momentary snapshot, recording a structural perspective on our writing up to that point, often incorporating what we have learned from research and what we have drafted so far, but presenting the topics in a visual hierarchy and sequence dramatized by design elements such as spatial layout in lines, paragraphs, laid out vertically and horizontally, and potentially reenforced by variations in labels, font, color, and size.

Compared to notes, running text, formatted text, and hypertext versions of the document, the outline, then, is simply one view among many of the evolving information. It may be consulted whenever we sense an internal inconsistency in our thought, add an idea that we had not anticipated, feel the need for clearer orientation in our research or drafting, or realize we must polish our thinking in particular locations, or throughout the document.

Because the outline fixes our ideas temporarily, we can interrogate and revise the organization at many scales, from focusing on a single point to canvassing the top level ideas. Such objectification of our thought allows interior conversation with our most recent concepts, unburdened by any need to remember everything in our heads.

Bringing common mental strategies to bear on the evolving artifact, cyclically, in many overlapping and interacting passes, we gradually unify and articulate our conception of the subject--learning as we go.

Adding the voices of people whose work we take notes on, we extend the conversation, using the outline to place their thoughts within our own evolving vision.

And practicing outlining with other people, we engage in collaborative brainstorming, analysis, and creation-if the medium can keep up with the flow. Outlining together allows each person full participation, but gradually erases claims to ownership, so that the process begins to seem simply an extensive, ongoing conversation, with shared results.

The media chosen--and to a lesser extent, the tools used to manipulate that medium--affect outlining by encouraging or discouraging, enabling or making difficult, the externalization of our evolving thought as we come to understanding a subject structurally.

The media and tools available--the communication technologies--exist along a range from slowest to fastest, from most recalcitrant to most flexible, from least legible to most visible, from difficult to modify to easy, even fluid. In our own era, we have seen outlining on a blackboard, on paper, and on the computer. But because outlining cannot exist without a medium, its nature changes as it moves from one medium to another, expanding and deepening all our conversations.


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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