Skills Earth Sciences

Creating an outline

Creating an outline will help you to organize your thoughts and ideas and to structure and keep track of large amounts of data and information10. Additionally, it will help you to show relationships between your ideas, and it will make your text more structured, clear, and logical, thus making it more readable for your audience.

To create an outline, you first need to determine the goal of your text, your audience, and your research question(s) (see Purpose and Audience). After this you can follow the next stepwise approach to help you to create the outline. Note that you can use this to make an outline for the complete text, but also to write an introduction with your research objectives before starting a bigger research project, or to write a specific chapter.

  • Write down everything you can think of. There is no need to pay attention to writing correctly; this phase is just to gather all your ideas10.
  • Evaluate your ideas10: which can stay and which need to go? Keep your reader in mind: what do they need to know4? Also keep your research questions in mind: are the ideas relevant to your questions?
  • Organize your ideas: group related ideas4, 10. You can use conceptual maps to connect your ideas, concepts, and authors/papers13.
  • Order your grouped ideas into chapters and paragraphs10. Again keep your reader in mind: in what order do they need to read the information to understand everything?4
  • Keep the paragraphs disconnected for a while, this also makes it easier to switch paragraphs around to improve the flow of your document once you start building your arguments (or have a rough draft of the full document)
  • Create (sub)heading10

Alternatively, you can also make an outline by asking yourself questions that you will answer in your text, by making conceptual maps to connect ideas, concepts, and papers, or by listing topic sentences13.

Be aware that you only select information that is relevant to your research question. This will make the end-product shorter, more focused, and easier to read. Do not try to include everything you know in your outline7.

In the end, your outline should look like an annotated table of contents including chapter (paragraph) titles and some comments/explanations on the content of the chapter (paragraph) showing your line of thought. In summary, your outline already determines the content of your text before you start to write, making the writing process easier8.

An essential part of outlining your text is to establish a research framework to inform your reader of the relevance of your work and to show your understanding of the state of the art of the field you are contributing to1. This framework will consist of scientific literature that you will need to read, assess in terms of relevance, and incorporate into your own text. This last step can be achieved by i) paraphrasing, ii) summarizing, iii) synthesizing, or iv) quoting the existing research. As it can be challenging to combine many different sources to determine your research framework, it is important to know which of the possibilities listed above is best applied in which situations. Note that more information on finding literature and reading scientific literature can be found in the Reading scientific literature module.

Summarizing or synthesizing scientific literature is usually performed by paraphrasing certain parts of journal papers. Paraphrasing entails expressing the findings of other researchers in your own words. This is common practice in Earth Science texts. Another less common way to include another’s work in your text is by quoting their publications, i.e., literally incorporating their published text or data in your contribution1.This may be valuable for short pieces of text that are crucial to include, word for word, in your own work.  Remember that without citing or referencing the literature and data you use, you may be committing plagiarism or fraud. To read up about the plagiarism rules at Utrecht University, see this link. Information on accepted ways to cite and reference others’ work can be found on the website of the UU library.

You may experience some initial difficulty with rephrasing other people’s work. Get started by determining what information you need to frame your research question or to achieve your purpose and look up literature accordingly. Then, copy-paste the most relevant parts of that literature into your writing document and try to combine the materials from each paper into a few cohesive sentences. Keep the goal of your paragraphs in mind and only incorporate literature that is necessary to communicate the intended message of your text. Summarize information from papers that say similar things, and if relevant, use words such as ‘but’ and ‘in contrast to’ to show your audience that there are disagreements between different authors in your field12. It may help to take some distance from your paraphrasing work and come back to the text with a fresh perspective later on.