Developing an Effective Outline

Outlining is the most effective way of communicating your ideas and exchanging thoughts.
Elena D. Kallestinova

Preparing an outline is the most important step in the process of producing a manuscript for publication in a journal. The outline bears roughly the same relation to the final manuscript as an architectural blueprint does to a finished house [2]. The purpose of an outline is to

  1. divide the writing of the entire paper into a number of accomplishable smaller tasks [3], and
  2. structure the pursuit of the actual research needed for the sections effectively.

A good outline will organize the various topics and arguments in logical form [2]. By ordering the topics you will identify, before writing the manuscript, any gaps that might exist both in the logic of your research idea and the paper that you intend to write [3].

Quick check: Have you developed the central message of the manuscript and its title? Remember the central message sentence (20-25 words). If you were asked to summarize your paper in one sentence, what did you say? Everything in the manuscript will be written to support this central message. [2]

First Stage: Create a Basic Outline

The best strategy to start writing is with an outline [3]. This first version will not be an outline that you are used to, with Roman numerals for each section and neat parallel listing of topic sentences and supporting points. This outline will be similar to a template for your paper. Initially, the outline will form a structure for your paper; it will help generate ideas and structure the process of obtaining the needed results. Start with a fresh LaTeX file, and write down, in any order, the Central Message together with bullet points of all important ideas that occur to you concerning the paper. Focus on answering the four questions [2]:

  • What is the topic of my paper? Why is this topic important? Why is this topic unsolved?
  • What was my idea? How is it motivated?
  • Why does my method work? What evidence shows that? How does it compare to other people?

Always include all your available visuals (figures, tables, formulas, equations, and algorithms), and list your findings so far [3]. These will constitute the first level of your outline, which will eventually expand as you elaborate. Try to accomplish the following steps [2]:

  1. Define the materials and methods. Briefly state the assumptions in which you worked, the derivations you employed, the methods you used, and most importantly, the evaluations carried out in the study.
  2. Summarize the question(s) and problem(s). What was known before you started the study? What answers were needed to address the problem(s)? List the key points pertaining to the question(s) and problem(s). What did you do to answer the question(s)?
  3. Define the principal findings and results. Your central message sentence probably encapsulates the most important findings. There may be others that you feel ought to be included. List these in note form. Don't worry about the order or about how many you put down.
  4. Describe the conclusions and implications. Make brief notes on each of the implications that arise from your study. What are the principal conclusions of your findings? What is new in your work and why does it matter? What are the limitations and the implications of your results? Are there any changes in practice, approaches or techniques that you would recommend?

Remember, at this stage, you are only constructing an outline. You are not writing! You just need to put down some notes to guide your thinking [3]. Bullet points are often fully sufficient.

Second Stage:

The next stage is to add context and structure. Here you will group all your ideas into the typical sections of computer science papers, e.g., for a typical paper at a ERA B+ or A- conference paper [1]:

  • Title (2000 readers)
  • Abstract (4-8 sentences, 200 readers)
  • Introduction (1 page, 100 readers)
  • The problem (1 page, 30 readers)
  • My idea (2 pages, 30 readers)
  • The details (5 pages, 5-10 readers)
  • Related work (1-2 pages, 20 readers)
  • Conclusions and further work (0.5 pages)

Preparing your first stage outline into this form will help add coherence to your work and sift your ideas [3]. Note that the you are still not writing but preparing bullet points. The important next steps are [2]:

  1. Organize and group related ideas together. List each key point separately. Key points can be arranged chronologically, by order of importance or by some other pattern. The organizing scheme should be clear and well structured. You can use a cluster map, an issue tree, numbering, or some other organizational structure. Identify the important details, describe the principal findings, and provide your analysis and conclusions that contribute to each key point.
  2. Identify the references that pertain to each key point.
  3. Develop all bullet points needed for the introduction. Before beginning on the introduction, read through the notes you have made so far in your outline. Read them through and see whether there is a coherent and cohesive story and a unifying theme that runs through the outline. Your introduction outline should start with the main message, describe what the purpose or objective of your study was, how you went about doing the study, what you found and what are the implications of what you found.

Now that you have expanded your outline, you are ready for the next step: discussing the ideas for your paper with your colleagues and mentor. IAS members frequently receive assistance with their paper drafts from other IAS members. Getting feedback during early stages of your draft can save a lot of time. Talking through ideas allows people to conceptualize and organize thoughts to find their direction without wasting time on unnecessary writing. Outlining is the most effective way of communicating your ideas and exchanging thoughts. Moreover, it is also the best stage to decide to which publication you will submit the paper [3]. More on that later.

Important Milestone: Finish the detailed outline and discuss it with your mentors and peers. [3]