Throw Away Your Outline
I had an English teacher my junior year of high school who told me what I had always wanted to hear: “Outlines won’t make a good paper. Don’t write one.”
My classmates were distressed when she said this; many became anxious. They relied on an orderly, reliable structure to write papers and achieve good grades. The lack of an outline structure made them very unhappy, and many complained to their parents, who then complained to the teacher to change the assignment, to no avail. Her rubric stated that we would be graded on argument, analysis, use of examples, and style. It was unfathomable to my classmates that the quality of their critical thinking and analysis would decide their grade. I was no less stressed, but unlike them, I felt freed by the lack of constraint.
Outlines are useful for keeping you in check. The mind truly can wander and you don’t want to find out the night before your paper is due that you were supposed to write about Romeo and Juliet and you went off on a tangent about your first grade crush. But outlines can often push you to structure your writing a certain way and produce a cookie cutter textbook essay, rather than follow your own thoughts and express new ideas.
The focus on outlines in school has led to rigid, substance-less writing. In 2017, The New York Times published an op-ed entitled “Why Kids Can’t Write.” According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, 75% of eighth and twelfth graders lacked writing proficiency and 40% of 2016 ACT writing exam test takes lacked the reading and writing skills necessary to complete successfully a college-level English composition class. This is troubling considering the fact that 82% of employers desire applicants with proficient writing skills. In a world where technology is rapidly taking the place of employees, skills like creativity, communication, and idea expression are an irreplaceably hot commodity.
According to Goldstein, students exposed to rigorous formal grammar instruction and outlined essay structure actually performed worse on writing assessments. It was the students with higher confidence in their writing ability, and who practiced writing by sitting at a desk every day crafting their ideas by hand or on a computer, performed better. In fact, Goldstein even examined how it was literature teachers’ lack of confidence in their own writing (likely due to a structured, non-creative literature education) that was preventing them from helping their own students develop writing skills. Judith C. Hochman, the founder of an organization called the Writing Revolution, leads a workshop for elementary school writing teachers to build confidence in their own writing so they can help their students write better.
Writing, it seems, is like a sport. The more you do it, and the more you revise it with a teacher, the better you get and the less anxious you are about having to do it. It has nothing to do with your outline, your grammar, or your ability to read books. How students practice freewriting their ideas, daily, determines their success.
In the U.S in the 1930s, progressive educators shifted away from traditional penmanship and cursive exercises to diary entries and personal letters as a more liberating psychological activity. This kind of education helped prominent thinkers develop their thoughts and ideas. During the 1960s Civil Rights movements, these nonwhite and poor students, now adults, felt empowered to act on their feelings and ideas as a result of their freewriting-based education. Their ideas changed the course of history.
I got an A+ on my paper. I wrote about class in The Canterbury Tales. I wrote some general thoughts in a notebook about my experience with class and what I thought of the characters, then matched them with some of the novel’s page numbers and quotes on sticky notes. I wrote the paper on my laptop and copied and repasted the structure, moving the ideas around, until it made logical sense.
But I think it was my teacher’s confidence in our abilities, in our minds, and in our perspective, that really helped me get that A+. I didn’t have to impress her or check any boxes or give her an outline. I just had to trust my ideas and my ability to prove them.
So that’s why I tell my students, don’t give me an outline. Talk to me about your idea. We can work from there.