By Brook Wilensky-Lanford
When Kalpana, Kat and I were gathering material for our Write-Ins focused on different stages of the writing process, the one we had the most trouble with was outlining. None of us, we realized, actually did outlining in our own writing. And from the dearth of answers to our question “How do you plan your writing?” on the whiteboard, it seemed like few of our fellow consultants did either. In sessions, though, I often find myself sketching out outlines and reverse outlines with students, and they are often the most valuable, transferable outcome of a session.
We ended up cribbing from The Craft of Research, which breaks down three kinds of outlines, good for different scales of projects and at different stages of the writing process: the topic outline, the sentence outline, and the storyboard. Topic outlines are the familiar numbered lists; they don’t have to include full sentences, just the phrases you know you need to cover, in order. Sentence outlines are more useful for writing in which you have to make an argument. The storyboard, their term for a modular, moveable outline made on index cards or separate sheets of paper, is great for projects where you need to make multiple arguments, and where you may be overwhelmed by which piece of which argument goes where.
And that’s where I finally got my inspiration: in our first Outlining Write In, in which consultants model the work we are asking students to do, I busted out the Post-Its and wrote a separate point on each one for an essay I’d been thinking about but couldn’t organize. Just seeing the points as separate entities, and playing with how they might be arranged, seemed to help lessen that overwhelming feeling.
A couple of weeks later, I got a chance to try the storyboard in a student session.
The student, who had met with me before for a business assignment, came in at the early stages of a psychology assignment requiring him to write about a “problem person” using the tools of the class readings. He said he was having trouble getting started, but seemed alert to the needs of the assignment and willing to do the work to organize his ideas.
So together we read and interpreted the assignment, underlining what appeared to be important terms or concepts he would need to apply to his “problem person” (easy to recognize, as they were the ones that were unfamiliar to me as a non-psychologist) and noting which concepts seemed more important by virtue of the professor having repeated them in slightly different forms in different parts of the assignment.
We ended up sorting the writing he’d need to do into three main categories: description of the “problem person” him or herself; assessment of your difficult interactions with that person; and proposed solutions for the communication problems.
Since the assignment relied to a certain degree on the student’s personal experience, he needed to first narrate that experience in order to meet the professor’s expectations. But the student had so many thoughts, and was so much more comfortable speaking them than writing them, that at first I was at a loss.
Then I remembered: index cards. (The center’s generous supply of highlighters, glue sticks, index cards, and tape always seemed a tempting but mysterious resource to me, so this was a light bulb moment for me.)
I used three different-colored index cards for each of the three agreed-upon sections. First I asked the student to write each separate thought on an index card so we could rearrange them afterwards, but he didn’t quite get the concept and was writing multiple bullet points on each card. So I switched to having him tell his story, and me writing down each distinct thought on a separate card, just three or four words each, piling them all on the desk without trying to order them at all.
When we had a sizable pile of cards, we moved to a big table and lined up the three category cards at one end. I handed him the pile of cards and asked him to place them each within a section category. Later I did go in and suggest some re-sequencing within sections, but it seemed more useful to the student for him to stay at the big-picture level. Those cards in between categories that you can see in the photo were deemed by the student to be “transitions.”
What the cards revealed bore out what I had started to notice while writing down his story: the student had a lot of specific anecdotes about the problem person themselves, and their difficult interactions, but since those interactions were in the past—the problem had been solved—he had less information in the third category, solutions. Storyboarding helped the student see that he already had a lot of relevant ideas, as well as to pinpoint where he’d need to do more research. Both insights seemed to leave the student relieved and re-motivated to approach the paper.
We both photographed the arrangement of index cards on the table, and he then re-piled the cards and took them with him. At his next session, he reported that the cards had helped him “organize and structure his ideas.” Storyboard success!
Published March 25, 2015