07 November 2008

Outlining

Neophyte asked about my outlining work, so here is a long and wordy post that I hope may help others who struggle with this part of writing.

Lately I have been trying to think much more abstractly about what the various parts of an essay need to do. The "abstract" outline for my current essay goes something like this:
state problem
plot and manuscript background
explain extent of problem
breakdown of problem (1, 2, 3)
methodology (1, 2, 3)
apply methodology to problem (1, 2)
compare to other similar texts
point of making comparison
generalize to whole text (not just area of study)
other solutions to problem, from analogue texts
work that area of study does for text as a whole
conclusion

It helps me to think about what various parts of the essay need to do in the most abstract terms possible. But it's not easy to do that. I tend to bog down in details; even in the list of topics above, you can see some slippage. Why isn't "compare to other similar texts" part of "methodology"? It is, in essence, but I started getting more concrete as I worked through the elements I thought I'd need. Still, such a list helps me ensure that all the necessary parts of the essay get written.

A few years ago I wrote a conference paper that I knew from the outset would appear in a proceedings volume, greatly expanded and developed. Here are the outlines I made for the conference paper and at an early stage in the expansion, followed by a reverse outline of the paper as it finally appeared. Details are suppressed in favor of vague terms like "particular kind of thing."

Conference paper organization:
introduction (refer to critics 1, 2, 3),
thesis,
theoretical background/situation in terms of topic 1 (deeper treatment of critical POVs),
also for related topic 2,
MS description,
plot summary,
explain "filter" (critic 4),
argument about the audience (critic 5),
analysis of text as particular kind of thing with examples (critic 6),
position of text in MS & how it relates to other contents,
idea of pairs of texts in MS as MS organizing principle.

When I started revising for publication, I made a list of "building blocks," and wrote these sections separately before thinking about how to fit them together:
text and MS as particular kind of thing
description of MS
description of audience
relationships among MS contents
particular text as "key" to MS
plot summary
particular text as particular kind of thing
history of particular kind of thing (as usually told)
definitions of particular kind of thing
2 types of narrative structure in particular kind of thing
how particular text participates in these types of structure
critical and theoretical backgrounds
importance of fundamental critic X

And here is what the published essay turned out to look like:
Intro: 3 graphs
fundamental critic X and his influence
historicizing and theorizing part of his argument
important questions for Middle Ages that X failed to ask

Text and manuscript: 7 graphs
argument about text A
plot
idea about pairs of texts as organizing principle in MS
how text A relates to other texts in MS
original owner of MS
description of MS
other readers of MS

Definitions of particular kind of thing: 11 graphs
problems of defining
efforts to define, 1
efforts to define, 2
efforts to define, 3
periodicity problems
overlap problems
focusing on overlap as feature, not bug
critical solutions to definitional problems
how this works in medieval texts, 1
medieval texts, 2

text A as particular kind of thing: 12 graphs
medieval standards for kind of thing
kind of thing in text A
close reading of part of text A
more close reading
relating close reading to significant critic Y
more close reading
relating critic to significant critic Z
further attention to text A
more of this kind of thing in text A
links between texts in MS, 1
links, 2
links/pairs

conclusion: 2 graphs
MS owners and reactions to texts
connecting all major ideas

I'm not sure that what I see the parts of this essay doing, now (about 5 years after starting it) was what I thought I was doing when I wrote it. It was long and complex, and required boiling down a lot of ideas that I am dealing with at greater length in my book in progress. Writing the essay, in fact, made it clear to me that I needed to write a book in order to present the ideas adequately. Furthermore, the topic of the conference meant that I was free to talk about only certain aspects of Fundamental Critic X, and only in my introduction, and then leave him for other contributors to deal with in other ways and at greater length. If I had written this essay as a stand-alone piece to submit to a journal, I would have made sure that Fundamental Critic X reappeared at least in the conclusion.

Really detailed outlining---I A 1 a b i ii c 2 a i etc---just doesn't work for me. I have tried, because my writing process does involve gathering lots of details and writing about them. So it seems as if sorting them into categories, then fitting them together in that sort of outline, ought to be a helpful approach. But it isn't. The paper built up from that approach never makes any sense. By nature near-sighted, I find it very hard to get any perspective on the big picture; but that is precisely what I need an outline for, to keep me on track with an actual argument instead of presenting the reader with more and more delightful details that I think are really exciting.

And now off to work on one of the "break down problem" paragraphs.

1 comment:

neophyte said...

Wow, this is really useful (and thorough!), Dame E. -- thanks!