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Ancient History and Mythology Research Papers

Outline Advice


In the following you'll find research paper writing suggestions for the outline-challenged. It's not a joke. There are people for whom writing or not writing an outline isn't a question of laziness. Since ability to outline seems closely related to ability to be organized, many outline-challenged people are also organizationally-challenged. If you're not one, please go to Jen Rosenberg's How-to Write History Papers using an outline.

Advice From a Teacher

Please note that everyone should be thinking carefully about what they want to write on. Your topic should come from your own reading and thinking, and should be on a subject that you really want to write on; it should come from a passion, or interest, or concern that you develop in the course of studying.
[garnet.berkeley.edu/~abulloch/paper.htm] Ancient Greek Myth

When to Write the Outline

Now, back to those who share with me this frustrating affliction. If you're lucky, your current history teacher will ask for a rough draft, rather than an outline of your research papers, but you'll probably find it impossible to get through even a single academic year without some zealous, organized type asking for an outline first. Because it's supposed to make the work easier, teachers/editors encourage writers to create outlines. Sometimes they're pretty gracious about these, saying they don't have to be formal, just notes about what you're going to write and in what order.

A formal outline should look something like this:

  1. First Major Idea
    1. Support
      1. Example
      2. Example
    2. Support
      1. Example
      2. Example
  2. Second Major Idea
    1. Support
      1. Example
      2. Example
    2. Support
      1. Example
      2. Example

Even so, this daunting task can make you give up before you begin.

Write Outline Later

A common tactic for the organizationally-challenged is to write the paper first, then write the outline (only if it's required), and then revise the paper. (The "organized" claim this is a waste of time. However, some of these same people fill shoeboxes with index cards covered with bits and pieces of information they'll never use. Talk about a waster of time, space, paper....)

Writing a paper before submitting an outline isn't silly -- it's practical. If you've written a first draft before you hand in your outline, you will be ahead of your classmates. From this point on you can polish the paper and look for tidbits of information to back up points you've made that you now see aren't adequately documented in your paper. Those who find preliminary outlines less than excruciating must know in advance all points that need backing. How they do so is one of the eternal mysteries.

Procrastination or Inability?

However, if a teacher asks for a finished outline handed in a day or two after the assignment is announced, you may not have time to write a rough draft. The teacher probably didn't really assign the paper at the last minute. It's probably somewhere on the syllabus. Since organization isn't your strong suit and you're taking the course because you don't already know all about the topic of your paper, you shouldn't feel too guilty -- unless you know you procrastinated. You probably couldn't have been doing in advance what you must do immediately now -- pare down general topic to a specific question to focus on for your paper. You needed to learn something about the topic (in class) first.

For the purposes of this article, the class you're taking is Greco-Roman History; the topic you've been assigned is "Herodotus." Thus far, you've learned that Herodotus is known as the Father of History and is sometimes called the Father of Lies. You've heard that Thucydides is held in higher regard than Herodotus as an historian, but that's about all you know. Obviously you need more. As time permits, you may be able to get a handle on the topic by doing preliminary research. At least read an encyclopedia article.

Many who have trouble writing outlines in advance need to know all about the topic before they can focus on the questions to be addressed in the paper. This means they must read a fair amount of background material first.

TIP: See digesting archaeological research

Practice: Write Outlines for Other People

This may not help you right this moment, but your best bet is to help other people write their papers. I'm not talking about cheating. Writers should always try to have someone listen to their material. Volunteer to verify that one or more of your fellow students' arguments hold, that the grammar is acceptable and that the words don't stumble over each other. If unsubstantiated points are made, your fellow student should (no guarantee -- he may feel insulted, instead) be grateful to you for pointing out something the teacher may grade down for.

Assuming your fellow student appreciates your efforts and allows you to read revisions, and assuming you pay very close attention, you may gain some inkling into the working of an orderly mind. In the process of reading successive drafts, you will see how your friend arranges the material. If your friend is also disorganized, you -- with your fresh perspective -- may be able to spot holes in the paper's logic. Perhaps, as a reciprocal favor, your friend will be willing to ask you a few leading questions to generate an outline. Otherwise, ask these questions of yourself and be as ruthless as you can.

  1. What's your topic?
  2. Can you boil it down? Even further?
  3. What do you think about it? ["Nothing" is not an acceptable answer.]
  4. Why?
  5. How can you support it?
  6. What are its weaknesses?
"There are two main kinds of writing in the field of music history: (1) writing that summarizes existing knowledge on a topic, like an encyclopedia article or a passage in a textbook, and (2) writing that states a thesis (a main idea) and presents an argument to support that thesis."
How to Write a Music History Paper
Next page > Tips on organizing a research paper > Page 1, 2, 3

© 2001 N.S. Gill

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