Idea Processing

How can use I an outline to better organize my ideas?

What is an outline?

The most important advice I give to all my students who have to write down their ideas for a project, paper or thesis, is: make an outline! A finished outline looks like a hierarchical "table of contents" of the text you are going to write with all the main headings and subheadings in the most logical order. E.g.


  • 1. Introduction
    • 1.1 motivation
    • 1.2 the problem
    • 1.3 previous work
  • 2. My approach
    • 2.1conceptual framework
    • 2.2 methodology
      • 2.2.1 data gathering
      • 2.2.2 data processing
      • ...
  • ...
  • 6. Conclusion

It could also look like a simple checklist or "to do" list, e.g.

Travel to Italy

  • prepare luggage
    • clothes
    • documents
    • ...
  • get plane ticket
  • go to airport
    • check bus schedule
  • ....

In practice a developing outline is a very loose and flexible structure which constantly evolves as your ideas become clearer and more detalied. Thanks to outlining software (built into most word processors), outlines are very easy to manipulate and change, so that they can always reflect your most recent thoughts on the subject.

In my experience, when writing a paper, it's always much better to start with an outline than with a draft. An outline is easier to make because you start by first putting in various, as yet unstructured, ideas, in the order that you remember them, without real constraints. At this stage you are merely playing with ideas, using them as building blocks that can be arranged in various combinations to see what structures they produce. That is why the original outlining applications on the computer, such as "ThinkTank", were called idea processors.

Overcoming hurdles

This complete freedom of writing anything at any place in any style makes it psychologically much easier for you to start the difficult undertaking of writing a paper. They help you to overcome any "fear for the empty page" or "writer's block" you may have. You don't have to worry about writing things that are incoherent, undeveloped, poorly formulated, or insufficiently supported: these shortcomings are easily corrected later.

As your view of the issue become clearer, you will nicely order, add, edit and reorganize the outline, until it looks like a more or less complete and coherent plan of action. Once you have an outline that looks satisfactory, writing the actual text becomes much easier, because you now know what to write when and where.

This helps you to avoid one of the most common hurdles when writing scientific texts: after having spent several pages building up your argument, you suddenly discover that an essential step in the reasoning is still missing and you don't know how to continue. This may get you entangled into various tricky situations:

  • you get blocked and postpone finishing the paper;
  • you continue writing about related issues hoping that inspiration will come, making the paper ever longer and more convoluted;
  • you decide to skip or side-step the issue, making you vulnerable to serious criticism from the later readers/referees;
  • you conclude that you started out on the wrong track, and will have to completely rewrite the pages that came before

Of course, using an outline will not make you immune to these problems: what looks like a coherent line of reasoning in short, outline form, may still turn out to have an essential gap when filling in the details. But the probability of this happening is much smaller and the consequences are less severe, as your writing until then will be more structured and to the point, and therefore easier to reorganize.

Using outline software

Even while writing, you can still decide to change the order of ideas, add things or leave out things. An outline is not a rigid structure that you have to adhere to, but a checklist or guide helping to remind you of the most important things you have to cover, without losing a view of the whole. Flexibility is the core principle!

I personally work best best with a dedicated outline software (the no longer updated More for the Mac), but all word processing programs, such as MS Word, have built-in outlining facilities. The important thing is that the program should make it easy to drag and drop text lines with ideas, so as to change their order and their hierarchical level: promoting or demoting headers, e.g from the style "heading 2" to "heading 3". Demoting typically is represented visually by a right indentation (an additional tab or space in front of the line). For example:

  • topic a
  • topic b
  • topic c

If you feel that the order is not quite right, this can be transformed to:

  • topic a
  • topic c
  • topic b

On the other hand, you may feel that topic c should be seen as a part of topic b, and then you "demote" it:

  • topic a
  • topic b
    • topic c

If your program offers a good visual representation of such an ordered hierarchy, you don't need all the fancy numbering conventions (like IV.3. a. or that are used in printed section headings. If necessary, such hierarchical numbering can always be automatically added when you prepare the actual paper/thesis.
A recent new online outliner, LooseStitch is a very nice collaborative tool, with OPML import/export features.

Keeping it short

The essence of an outline is that it is much shorter than a paper. Thus, outline paragraphs or "headings" are normally less than one line long. They do not form full sentences, but list key ideas in "telegraph style". For example, don't write in your outline:

Complexity is a subtle and difficult to define concept, that has been used differently in different domains



  • difficult to define
  • different uses in different domains

Therefore, when preparing a paper you can save a lot of typing by first organizing your ideas as an outline. Only when you are satisfied that everything you need to say, but nothing more, is there, in a direct and logical order, you should start writing the actual sentences of the paper.

In my experience, a paper that was first outlined tends to be much shorter than one where the ideas where developed while writing the full text. That is because you can avoid most repetitions, vague formulations, cross-references, material that is of little relevance, and other forms of "literary procrastination". This is particularly important for papers submitted to journals and proceedings, where there are typically strict limits on the length, and shorter papers have higher chances of being accepted for publication.

Outline as a thinking aid

I start an outline typically as a checklist of ideas that seem relevant, in abbreviated form. I then spend a lot of time reading and rereading the things that are there, moving some up or down, or putting things that belong together under a new header, and now and then adding what seems to be missing. I regularly look again at the same outline with intervals of days, weeks or sometimes even months and years. Each time I look at the same ideas with a fresh mind, new ideas are triggered, and things I learned or understood in the meantime find their place in what I noted down before.

The outline can be seen as an extended memory, keeping track of your ideas on a particular subject over the weeks and years, so that you are unlikely to forget the fruit of earlier study and thinking. By examining the outline you make your extended memory interact with your internal memory, thus triggering your mind to fill the gaps, notice the incoherences, elicit new ideas, etc.

The precise words or sentences used are less important for outlines than for papers, where the emphasis is more on the visual structure produced by the arrangement of headings. That is why an outline should not contain too much text: when you cannot see everything on the screen, you lose the advantages of visual juxtaposition of the core elements. You may remember that there is a "magical number" (7 plus or minus 2) that denotes the maximal number of items you can hold at once in your working memory. With an outline you can significantly increase that number, by having all items close together on the screen, and move them around to try out different combinations. So an outline is not only a tool that helps you to write, but one that actually helps you to think and remember what you thought...

More useful advice on making outlines:

An example outline

Below you'll find an example outline for a paper on cybernetics I wrote (note that the final paper has a different outline, since things always change while you are writing):

Cybernetics and second order-cybernetics

  • Historical Development
    • Wiener & Rosenblueth
    • Macy meetings
    • self-organization, autonomy
    • second-order cybernetics
    • modelling
    • relations with sciences of complexity
    • robotics, cyberspace
  • Relational Concepts
    • Isomorphisms between domains
      • biology
      • technology
      • society
      • psychology
    • substrate independent modelling
    • systems, organization
    • networks
    • variety
    • information and entropy
  • Circular Processes
    • self-application, recursion
    • closure
    • fixpoints, eigenvalues, attractors
    • self-organization
    • autopoiesis
    • reproduction
    • circular causality
    • negative feedback
    • positive feedback
    • self-reference, reflexivity
      • the liar's paradox
  • Control systems
    • the control relation
    • goal or reference level
    • perception
    • action
    • amplification
    • the law of requisite variety
  • Control hierarchies
    • control of the goal
    • the law of requisite hierarchy
    • multilevel systems
    • metasystem transitions
  • Models
    • feedforward
    • prediction
    • homomorphisms
    • the law of regulatory models
  • Model-building and the role of the observer
    • constructivism
    • distinctions
    • observer-observed interaction
    • Epistemological issues
  • References


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