Generally, when research writers develop an outline, they think in linear terms — i.e., I need to cover A, B, C, and D. While this works in some cases (such as when developing a narrative or a progressive argument), linear thinking can sometimes inhibit creative thinking and lead to writer’s block.
Rather than thinking from beginning to end, think in terms of squares. Each square can be a mini outline for a narrow topic, which you can later include in the larger paper. For example, to organize a paragraph, think like this:
TOPIC (expressed with a topic sentence)
3-4 supporting sentences.
Once you have outlined these squares, or blocks, you can then arrange them in any order you would like. This reduces pressure from needing to outline an entire essay or research paper in one sitting.
If you prefer an “old school” method, use note cards or post-it-notes to outline each paragraph. These can then be arranged and rearranged on a table, until you are pleased with the ordering of the research paper. For a modern method, use Scrivener to use virtual notecards, which you can then reorder on your computer screen.
In other words, the “line” comes at the end, not the beginning. When starting an outline, using squares can enable you to think more creatively, include more content, and more effectively arrange your research.
The square method is especially helpful when you are doing currently researching. This way, you can outline as you go (e.g., little bits at a time) rather than outlining everything afterwards. You’ll not only save time this way, but you won’t forget details along the way.
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