November 29, 2005
Outlining the Essay Answer
James Kilpatrick, in his book The Writer’s Art, tells us that a writer “functions as a kind of forest guide . . . escort[ing] the tenderfoot along an unfamiliar trail.” Kilpatrick observes that this “metaphorical forest ranger would find himself in trouble if he embarked upon a hike with no plan of getting from Point A to Point B.” Therefore, he advises, “Before we begin a letter, an editorial, a brief, or a note of instructions to the babysitter, we ought to have a clear idea of the points we intend to make and the order in which we intend to make them.”
Novice writers, however, have a very difficult time accepting Kilpatrick’s advice because they cannot shake the feeling that outlining is a waste of valuable writing time. Nowhere is that reluctance more evident than in the way most students approach writing an answer to an essay question on an exam.
When a student has sixty minutes to answer a particular essay question, everything in him screams that there is no time for outlining the answer. He must begin writing – NOW – if he hopes to get everything said. He begins writing, therefore, almost immediately after reading the question. He may jot a note or two in the margin of the question and may underline a word here or there, but he is not going to waste his time preparing an outline that no one will read and that will garner him no points.
That approach, of course, misses a key point about writing: writing is a form of thinking; the written product itself is only as clear as the thinking that preceded it.
A student who understands that principle knows that she cannot begin writing in mid-air if she hopes to provide the reader with a carefully reasoned and well-crafted response to a complicated question. She understands that, even under the time pressure inherent in exams – perhaps especially under the time pressure inherent in exams – thinking before writing is critical.
Therefore, she takes time to brainstorm the points she will need to cover, rereads and rethinks the question, revises her brainstorming, and converts it into an outline of points and sub-points that follow a logical plan leading to a carefully considered and thoroughly explained conclusion.
In other words, she thinks before she writes the answer itself because she knows how writing works and how reading works. She knows that to begin writing in mid-air is to think inefficiently and to do it on the reader’s dime. She knows that unless she plans before she writes, the reader will treated to her confusing, inefficient, meandering attempt to think through the question. She knows her reader will find himself wandering in the woods, off the trail and unable to find his bearings.
She also understands that she can write as least as much by thinking and planning first as she can by simply musing in a stream-of-consciousness form. The irony for the student who thinks he hasn’t time to plan is that he will waste at least the same amount of time writing in fits and starts, rereading his answer to find where he has been and where he is headed, and staring into space trying to think of what should come next.
The primary difference between the two writers is that one spends large amounts of time inefficiently groping for words and the other spends that time efficiently designing a fully considered response. The planner takes no more time than does her colleague, but her end product is coherent and easily read. The non-planning writer, in contrast, produces no more prose than his colleague, but his answer is a photograph of his confusion as he attempts to figure out what he needs to say; so his professor watches him stumble through the thought process with all its missteps and false trails.
Worse, because the unplanned writing is likely several pages of prose, it defies any attempt by the writer to see what is missing or to cut out what is extraneous. The trees obscure the forest, so the writer misses issues and sub-issues, arguments and counter-arguments, because he cannot see the big picture and the parts’ relationship to one another.
The planner, on the other hand, steps back from her outline and makes a final judgment as to what is there, what is missing, and what should be jettisoned. She can see the gaps and the illogical arrangements, and she has not committed several pages of writing to missteps.
If we can help students realize that writing is in fact a thinking process, we can help them see that the best writing product is an end result of thinking carefully. Taking time to think using some sort of sketched outline, even during time-pressured exams, is critical to producing thoughtful prose. Thoughtful prose, in turn, is the sort of prose most likely to lead the reader comfortably and efficiently along the unfamiliar trail of the writer’s analysis; and it is the type of prose most likely to provide all the steps necessary to complete the journey. (dbw)
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