Having taught for many years and mentored students at all levels of education, I have noticed one thing that is often overlooked by novice and even experienced students: the power of outlining and flowcharting in the writing preparatory phase. However, I can recall my high school days when English teachers would always tell us to “start with an outline and then write” our papers. I didn’t learn that lesson in high school or even in undergraduate work; I only realized the value of an outline when I started my master’s level work. Shortly thereafter, I became familiar with flowcharting and since then, I rely more heavily on that tool than on outlining. When used correctly, either can be used to accomplish the same goal.
How We Write
Most of us do some sort of planning before writing short pieces. It may be a mental process or in some cases, the development of some sort of written outline and that usually works in those cases. For example, we all know the basic form of a letter–the date, greeting, body, signature–so we automatically write the letter but when the document to be written is more complex, the mental map fails us in many cases, leading to multiple (additional) revisions and wasting precious time. If we are writing a document such as a resume, we most likely refer to some template that shows us the outline of the different material that should be included. Even at the doctoral level, we usually have some form of template that describes the content of different sections to guide our writing process. The problem is not in the content of the template but the format. While a written template may have all the necessary descriptions of the required content, our minds may not clearly see all of those descriptions in the narrative because we tend to scan while reading most material. This is where an outline or a flowchart becomes useful because it gives us a more structured view of the contents of the narrative template.
How We Should Write
In cases where there is no defined template or other structure, we may need to rely on the brainstorming method to first identify all the pertinent material that should be included in the document and then do the outline or flowchart. This may still hold true for more detailed parts of a general template. For example, if you plan to interview participants, you may need to brainstorm about the specific characteristics of participants that would best inform your particular study.
Like so many other planned activities, brainstorming should be the first step in writing when there is little or no strutured guidance. Brainstorming is easily explained but difficult to implement because we tend to analyze as we go, losing good ideas and wasting time. A “brainstorm” is just that, a storm of ideas poured out quickly and without analysis. The goal is to get as many things as possible down on paper or in a document before attempting to analyze in any way. No screening, no ordering, no arranging, no deleting…just put it down and go to the next one.
Look More Professional
Part of becoming a scholar is to adopt scholarly ways. Another advantage to outlining or flowcharting when undertaking scholarly work is that you can also add the supporting references to each part of the outline or flowchart before you begin to write. That is invaluable because each part of a scholarly work must be clearly supported by previous works that give credibility to your work. As an example, in a Methods section of a dissertation, something that students often overlook is the need to support the various aspects of the research plan using the work done by the experts for the selected approach. Contrary to many people’s beliefs, research is not just a haphazard wandering, hoping to find something new, but a strongly supported, planned approach to investigating a documented problem.
Save Your Valuable Time
Using either outlining or flowcharting for longer documents will help save time by reducing the number of revisions or additions that are inevitable even when you do use these planning tools. Applications (apps) can make the process of flowcharting or outlining much easier and there are plenty of them available. Some have more bells and whistles than others and while it is mainly a personal choice, some shine more brightly than others. Look for one that has a shallow learning curve—one that you can start using “out of the box”—and one that can be expanded as you learn and want more. As a MAC user, my personal favorite for outlining is OmniOutliner by OmniGroup. While packed with many wonderful and useful features, it also has a shallow learning curve and tremendous flexibility for brainstorming, rearranging, and creating outlines. When it comes to flowcharting, I flit from one app to the other. Some of my favorite flowcharting apps include SimpleMind by Simpleapps (MAC) and XMind, a multiplatform or online app with different levels of complexity. One free and easy to learn web-based app is WorkFlowy. The linked video explains how to use it. One main advantage in using outlining or flowcharting apps is that you can easily rearrange the order of items on the list or on the chart, making it quicker and neater to organize your writing.
The main thing to learn from this post is that to save time and money (because your time costs!) is to take the time to do the necessary planning before writing. These techniques will also help you look more professional! I hope that you learn that lesson faster than I did!