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Loose Outlines that Lead to Only One Conclusion by Arlene Walker-Andrews

November 14, 2012

How I approach and complete a writing task depends in large part on the specific task. Personal letters are mostly stream of consciousness. Memos and reports require close attention to tone. Can I say this more diplomatically to get back what I need without ruffling too many feathers? Writing a research article or chapter is more demanding and requires longer preparation and substantial editing. After reading widely and considering data, I try first to determine what it is I want to say. What is my major point? How can I get to it?

I begin with a loosely organized outline to set up the arguments I plan to make and to identify what information should be included under each. I want to lead the reader on a path that allows only one conclusion. I scrawl notes in the margins about information I shouldn’t forget to include. (Yes, I still find a paper copy with annotations and notes of great utility.) Then I stop. For days (depending on the deadline), I don’t write at all. Sometimes I actively consider what I intend to say, most times I garden or clean house or take walks while my mind works underground. I continue to read others’ work, in case there is additional material I should use to bolster my account. Once I start writing again, I can complete 30 or more pages in a single sitting. As a result, draft 1 takes little time, but then I edit.

Each time I pick up the draft, I start at the top, changing words, hunting for duplication, re-phrasing, moving sentences, polishing, polishing. This means that the first half dozen pages get re-written countless times, while those at the end may see only 2 or 3 passes. I’m always afraid the difference will show, but overall the process seems to work.

Arlene Walker-Andrews is Associate Provost of Associate Provost for Global Century Education and Special Assistant to the President for Accreditation. 

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