Making Outlines Work in Tech Writing

Beginning of an outline for a technical reportI am not a fan of outlines. I never could figure out how someone was supposed to know all the bits of their document before they wrote it. Sure you can make a working sketch of what you want to cover, but all that I. A. ii. a. stuff? How about no?

Since I have bad feelings about outlines, I didn’t ask students to do more than a jotted plan for the sections of their work. For shorter documents, I didn’t even ask for that. That all is, until recently. My experiences during spring semester and the summer term have changed my thinking. When I added a formal outline assignment to the technical recommendation report project, students were more likely to include all the required elements in their drafts.

Previously, students left sections out, combined sections, and added sections that didn’t fit the project. No matter how many times I suggested that they look at the sections in the textbook and examine the structure of the sample reports, I failed. I couldn’t consistently persuade students to use the structure appropriate for the genre.

Frustrated with the challenge, I tried explaining how I would approach such a project, providing step-by-step instructions for how to create an outline that would ensure structure of the project included all the required elements.

Whenever I am working on something with a specific structure, from a conference proposal to a formal report, I copy the required structure (or type it if it’s not something I can copy), and paste the information into my draft. Frequently, I copy any instructions, notes, or tips as well. As an example, If I were writing a proposal for the Call for Proposals: 2021 CPTSC Research Grants to Promote Anti-racist Programs and Pedagogies, I would copy everything in the “Organization of the Proposal” section, paste it into my draft, and then convert it to a formal draft with notes. The resulting outline would look something like this:

  1. Cover sheet
     Include applicant name(s), institutional affiliations, contact information for the project leader, and project abstract of no more than 200 words (this page does not count as part of the length requirements). After this cover sheet, please do not include any information that references your name or institution, so that entries can be peer reviewed without mention of names or specific institutions.
  2. Problem Statement
     Explain the problem or question that the research project is attempting to solve.
  3. Background
     Describe the significance of this question or problem by situating the proposed project in the context of current and previous program-based work in the field, drawing on field literature.
  4. Methodology
     Outline the proposed method(s) and methodology 
  5. Timeline
     Include an annotated project timeline that notes the various major research activities/tasks associated with the project, including IRB approval if necessary. (For applicable research, funding will not be released until an IRB approval or exemption has been obtained and submitted to the grants coordinator.)
  6. Budget: Include an itemized project budget. Funds may be used for research expenses only, including materials, research assistants, travel to collect or analyze data, software, etc. Funds may not be used for salary, release time, or conference travel. Institutional overhead and indirect costs are not allowed. Proposals with matching or in-kind contributions are strongly encouraged.
  7. Statement
     Include a statement that the researcher(s) understand and are willing to adhere to the requirements of the grant recipient.

The assignment I set up has students Outline Their Recommendation Reports using the same basic strategy. The assignment asks them to customize the information to their report topics, with this instruction: “Revise the basic information you have copied to make it specific to your report. Just copying over the basic outline is not enough. You need to add details that demonstrate your plans for the report.”

The results of the assignment have been fantastic. Students who completed the outline activity went on to include the required sections and in the expected order. Other activities in the unit reinforced the structure of the reports. The outline assignment does not deserve full credit, but it certainly made a good start!