"Writing itself becomes the subject of the writing course..."

 — Michael Carter       

General Writing Advice, part 3: Thesis and Outline

August 18th, 2012 by

This past week, I helped to teach a workshop on writing at Azusa Pacific University. For four mornings, for four hours each morning, a colleague and I met with a group of wonderful people motivated to be effective writing teachers. These teachers came from many disciplines, not just English, where, the stereotype suggests, writing should be taught. Our colleagues from across the curriculum at APU, from biology and nursing to Communication Studies and Education, joined in discussions about what was and wasn’t working for us in teaching writing in our disciplines. I was honored and encouraged by everything that went on this week.

And I was struck by a few important issues. I realized that those bits of general writing advice—never use contractions, never use the first person pronoun “I,” and some of my own pet peeves, like never use the second person “you”—were all well-known, deeply entrenched, and taught in our various fields. Less known and practiced were principles of Composition process pedagogy—that good writing results from writing many drafts, and writing many drafts can often lead to students having fewer grammatical errors. In contrast, most students don’t revise, and they don’t really practice invention techniques that really work for them. They aren’t really taught these techniques.

Thesis and Outline

What I discovered instead was that some general writing advice, especially the advice to have a thesis statement and write an outline before writing, is widely practiced.

This is what passes for invention: We mainly tend to focus on generating the content and organizational patterns of writing, but we ignore audience and the context of what we have to say. The word has gotten around that having or finding a thesis or a focus is standard number one for good writing. Every essay should have one. The trouble is that most of us force our students to write one—and their outline—before they have defined the problem they are interested in, and without really knowing what they are writing about.

The problem with writing an outline should be obvious enough. The outline is written before the paper. We write it and assume that it gives our essay its final structure. And then we write and discover ideas we couldn’t have anticipated before the outline stage.

This is why most published writers do a first draft—Donald Murray calls this the “zero draft.” Then we can work on it again and add our new ideas, return to invention as needed. I shared this week that I usually don’t write an outline of a piece until I have a rough draft. Then I write an outline, which reflects back to me the shape of what I’ve written, what I’ve emphasized, over-emphasized, left out, or not developed enough. The outline helps me then to rewrite and generate more prose.

From Ancient Traditions

The thesis is most interesting, though. In the ancient Roman and Greek tradition of Composition, called the progymnasmata, the thesis was often viewed as a question. Instead of the modern view of a statement, the ancients saw the thesis as a tool for exploring a problem fully.

We do not view thesis statements that way today. We do not invite students to explore, to ask questions. We don’t view writing this way either. We tend to see writing as reporting results, which should be unified around our thesis statement.

If this is so, no wonder so many students and teachers see writing as trivial.

I didn’t get that impression from my colleagues this week, though. And I look forward to the good things that are going to happen across our curriculum this fall.

Posted in Donald Murray, Invention, progymnasmata, Revision, writing across the curriculum| 4 Comments


Comment by Elena E Smith on August 20, 2012 at 9:41 am

I like what you said about the ancient view of outlining as related to defining the problem. I think our lack of emphasis on this is exactly why outlines don’t always work. I used to think of an outline as the step before a finished product; that making an outline gave me permission to proceed. (I learned to write in the ’60s, when stream-of-consciousness was how writing was taught). Recently, I was working on a short story, and I redid my outline about 6 times, until I finally got the story “problem” defined. It was a relief, and it produced the kind of finished product I wanted.

Comment by Thomas Allbaugh on August 20, 2012 at 9:57 am

Thanks, Elena. I received some of that “stream-of-consciousness” instruction also. It was all the rage, another trend. Anyway, I agree with your point about outlines, but remember that outlines are not the ancient view. The ancient view is to consider the thesis first as a question–as a problem to be solved. The modern view is to treat the thesis as an answer, which then requires a rigid outline. I sometimes think the ancients knew more than we do, maybe not about the genetic code or the structure of the solar system, but certainly about how to live and work.

Comment by Joseph Bentz on August 20, 2012 at 10:56 am

It is helpful to consider this idea of the thesis as a question that helps a writer probe an issue through multiple drafts. My question is, do you still see the value of a final draft that includes the more modern view of a thesis–a statement that presents an argument that the essay will support?

Comment by Thomas Allbaugh on August 20, 2012 at 11:11 am

Joseph, yes, I do think that a final draft should certainly have a clear position, or thesis, or statment that presents an argument. And the essay should support the thesis. But I do think that earlier rhetoric teachers valued process/exploration, and their ideas about thesis would support both process and your more modern view. I think this is a clear case not of “either/or,” but of “both/and.” With writing, we can have it both ways!

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