Outlining Principles


We outline to see the larger sense of what we read: when we lift our eyes off the page to figure out what a passage means.

  • Keywords as arranged here suggest how the text is organized and how we understand it as a structured analysis
  • Mindmaps for some are easier and faster to prepare, for then we are blocking out arguments to understand their logical relationships
  • Sub-heads on the web and in publictions are everywhere, here an article by PWC
  • Pyramids suggest not not only an outline’s hierarchy, but the relationship of parts to the whole: the triangle suggests overall shape governing the arrangement of stones
  • Mindmaps are like pyramids, especially as we edit them using stronger keywords
  • Illustrations are often stronger still, here reinforcing the outline by associating a face and person with each section
  • Graphs are illustrations that help us develop a sense of proportion, here are survey results from KPMG

This tool we can put to use

  • Scanning for keywords helps us break up a text into meaningful chunks that we can then survey, evaluate, and read in greater detail and depth
  • Identifying arguments helps us reduce an article to what is important (so we can skim over the details)
  • Collapsing leaves us with sub-heads we can then survey to grasp the overall shape, then arrange as we establish priorities
  • Asking questions from the beginning is the best way to establish priorities, because then we identify our goals (and not get lost in the details)
  • Drafting, whether with pencil and pen or discussing our problem with others, is a great way to talk things through; once you’ve gotten your thouoghts down on paper, outlining helps you clarify, sort, and prioritize

Managing complexity

Once we’ve mapped the basic problem it is time to dig in, but as soon as we assemble more than a simple list we quickly have too much and risk losing our way: for that, demoting details and discussion under sub-heads and collapsing outlines helps us keep the main ideas on top; in this way outlines help us manage complexity

  • Working systematically makes this possible: keep your sub-heads on top (headings 1-3) and your discussion and details below (headings 4-6)
  • Collapsing buries details and so offers us a top-level view
  • Select and bury as your data piles up, keep the most important on top and burying the rest, because most of you find you will need to get to that precious handful of pure gold, but to see the gold you’ll want to bury much of the rest

Asking questions

Prioritizing means developing and applying criteria which we develop by asking questions: once you enter and outline your material you’ll want to beat move things around and thereby clarify your emerging argument

  • Start with questions, keep asking them, and your questions (and results) will get better; plus, having better questions will help you keep the good stuff on top (and bury the rest)
  • Look for the questions the experts are asking, because as soon as you bring your little question to the web the chances are very good you’ll soon find the many other people who have already addressed it and moved on to other, better questions
  • Look not for one answer, but for three, because two heads are better than one, because there are more ways to see a thing, and because as soon as you begin discussing your problem you’ll soon find others who agree and disagree and want to enter into a conversation and so you do best to plan for it; plus, others will expect you to ground your contribution in a literature review

Asking research questions

This raises the question of “who cares?”, and for many this is the most difficult part because you won’t know that until you transform your topic into a question and look for those others sharing it.

  • Add an indirect question, as you see in this example from “The Craft of Research”, as you’ll likely discover you started off with a topic and not a question
  • Answer So What?, which for many does not come automatically, but when you are able to do that your question will gain tremendous strentgh
  • Alternating conceptual and practical questions, and your research question will interest both you and others — especially those who will then want to listen, discuss, and maybe even hire you

Ask other kinds of questions, exploit other kinds of outlines

There are many different ways to work with material, and I hope the following brief survey might give you some ideas of how better to keep track of things and thinking

  • A list by Johnny Cash This simple list is lots of fun, and I think you will quickly realize that its author might have used it to remember to do things he thinks important: lists can help us remember (we forget easily)
  • My Photo Diary This view of a notebook I use on my phone to keep track of what I am thinking when I am out photographing is organized as a chronology or journal so that I might retrace what I was thinking along the way
  • Create Robust Process for Translating Documents A professional example. This list of lists is based on the famous Toyota A3 Model and where we see that innovation has been organized as a series of steps anyone wanting to change the process has to follow: each item in this list of steps includes a list of requirements or advice: a list of lists.
  • Leonardo’s Notebook This fantastic collection of illustrations and notes is organized around a central figure — a list of lists — arranged like a mindmap: freeform outlines such as this are useful for exploration

What is the deep logic?

Outlines are “tree structures”, lists of lists, and so raise lists to higher levels

  • A Visual Bibliography of Tree Visualization is a collection of 290+ different ways tree structures may be displayed to transform data into illuminating views of this or that phenomena so we might see things better: our Outline View in MS Word is just one of many ways researchers use tree structures to manage complexity and work through and reveal meaning
  • Sub-heads, Signposts and Details offers a basic view of how formatting outlines can make it easier to see topics or sub-topics by subordinating discussion and detail
  • Revision, re-writing our sub-heads using high-level, memorable generalizations — “the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker” — invites us to think things through: later, when we read the sub-heads, we will be able to “unpack” what we put into them (the power of metaphor)
  • Thinking By revision we meaning thinking: When you think about sub-heads to represents notes, drafts, and other important details, you have to think your way through to keywords: this likely involves having to check your understanding, clarify your thought, and building meaning and memory
  • Logic By thinking we here mean primarily logic: by putting topics, issues, and other high-level generalizations on top of discussion, you offer your readers powerful signposts for what follows and clear their way of unnecessary, distracting details
  • Documentation When you revise your notes into an outline form, the work you do to make sense of your material and its result is literally built into the form: instead of great masses of materials you (and your readers) will see what is important first.

Next Steps: Styles