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Cal Newport teaches his version of a better outlining process for writing an essay.

An Outline Insight curated by WriteMapper

For Students Blog Post Resource
Forget hierarchies. Your outline should capture the topics you want to discuss in your paper.

CAL NEWPORT IS a tenured professor of computer science at Georgetown University. While pursuing his graduate studies at MIT, he's started a popular blog on student advice, as well as published several books on personal and student productivity.

In this blog post, he shares one of his study tips for students — a better form of outlining that will help essays get formed quicker and easier, as opposed to a traditional, commonly-advocated outline template.

Besides a having had a bright student career and being well-known for his writing work, Newport has also gone on to become an outstanding academic, achieving tenure in no time at all. He's published more than 60 peer-reviewed research papers which have been cited more than 3,500 times.

The Main Takeaway

Newport argues that the traditional type of student essay outline that's taught and used throughout the U.S. school system is flawed and doesn't work. Specifically, that it's too rigid and doesn't allow for sufficient wiggle room in case the writer wishes to change their arguments based on what they discover as their writing proceeds.

In this blog post, he lays out a detailed step-by-step guide that students follow along and use for writing their own essays.

Obstacles and Difficulties

It can be a very inefficient and time-consuming process to have to constantly and repeatedly have to refer to one's quoted sources for your essay in a separate document. This also makes it harder to draw links between multiple quotes if there are many of them, possibly leading to sub-par arguments and a similar quality of essay.

Another common affliction facing students who need to write essays is writer's block — having an outline helps one get off to a running start instead of a cold one.

Using an Outline

Newport instead suggests another type of outline — one that's "flat" and devoid of any hierarchy. By initially committing only a barebones skeleton structure to your essay, the writer can then be more flexible about how they'd like to approach the meat of it, and also be more able to base their arguments and thinking on factual quotes and references compiled on the essay's subject, as opposed to their initial assumptions or outright claims made from the outset.

This approach relies heavily on having done extensive research work for your essay's subject, and complied a sizeable list of quotes to use within each section of your proposed skeleton outline. Newport terms this a "topic-level outline", and it is from this outline that you can directly move on from to morph into the final paper, expanding on the quotes assembled into a fully-blown, convincing essay paper.

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