In Search of Structure, or: How to Outline

Writing a dissertation is very difficult. It’s as difficult as everyone makes it sound. Even when you have a solid idea and a clear visualization what should come of it. What makes writing a dissertation difficult isn’t the pulling a great idea of thin air, nor is it the painful hours of reading and writing. No, it’s the structure of the thing.

A lesson i have learned recently is that outlining is an excellent exercise in organization; however, it’s one I never really learned how to do. Outlining was my second least favorite activity in grade school. The first was PE. Yes, I enjoyed long division and diagramming sentences to writing outlines.

One of my last classes at Pacifica included a project to become familiar with the Outliner tool in Microsoft Word, which I did, except that the assignment was to dumb my previous Pacifi-papers into Outliner and organize them accordingly. Which I did, but they came with a built-in structure, and I didn’t need to worry about it too much.

But now I have to create a structure completely from scratch. When I write, I let the words flow and let them build their own structure. Presumably, this comes either from my ability to visualize a completed project (i.e. end goal) and progress directly toward that goal, or perhaps this comes from my tendency to follow directions and patterns rather than free form.

Today, I set out to make a dear friend a set of arm warmers. Google arm warmers. There are a bagillion patterns out there, all variations on the arm warmer main pattern. But I decided to create my own pattern. But here’s the rub: I’m creating it as I go. I’m noting stitches and counts along the way. What makes this significant? Because there’s no bloody outline!

So now, I’m hung up on the need to create an outline, more for myself than anything. All in the name of having an organizational structure to my dissertation, so it’s not entirely a haphazard exercise in creative writing. That was what NaNoWriMo was for (and I’m very proud of that exercise!)

This leads me to the point of having to make some decisions, the main one being where to go from here? Do I spend the rest of my week construction arbitrary outlines (I haven’t even begun some of the research for the later chapters yet), or do I continue plowing along and let the outline build itself? Either prospect sounds intimidating.

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