Writing Tips for Hum 1

Outlines

Other writing tips:

 
We are all presumably familiar with roman-numeral outlines: lists of topics and subtopics that show how, in a hierarchical fashion, a paper is organized. Such an outline is very useful to see large-scale structure, but having one does not ensure clarity of communication. For this class, I would like you to use a slightly different sort of outline--one that lists not topics to cover, but points to get across ("sub-theses" if you will).

For example, suppose we have the following thesis:

"Erik Satie cultivated a child-like innocence and humor as a reaction 
against the overblown pretensions of the romanticists."

A conventional outline might look something like this:

  1. Introduction
  2. Early life
  3. Simplicity in his works
  4. Love of nonsense
  5. Primitivism and naïveté
  6. Conclusions
But while this topical skeleton may help you to organize your facts, it offers no clues about how these facts are to be connected or how they are to relate to your thesis. Try replacing each main point with a single full sentence, each similar to a thesis statement:
  1. Introduction: Erik Satie cultivated a child-like innocence and humor as a reaction against the overblown pretensions of the romanticists.
  2. In Satie's own childhood, music and friends like his eccentric uncle helped him escape family problems.
  3. Satie's works from the very first are characterized by a disarming simplicity.
  4. Satie's humor is that of absurdity and nonsense.
  5. The deliberate flouting of conventional music theory for simplicity and juxtapositions earned Satie the reputation of a "primitive."
  6. Conclusion: Satie's importance and charm as a composer lies in the humorous ways in which he subverted romanticism, while retaining a childlike voice.
Now the outline more clearly states what each section of the paper will set out to show and what evidence is necessary for each point. The introduction merely restates the thesis. I won't try to prove anything in the introduction, merely set the stage and justify the importance of the issue. The conclusion sums up the points made and perhaps again establishes the importance of what you've shown.

The other main points in this case, however, do not seem balanced, nor is it always clear how they progress from the thesis statement. Now we will try to rearrange some of these ideas into a more coherent structure, one in which the interior points are parallel. What we have so far is a list of musical characteristics plus some potential for insight into Satie's childhood. That potential would be more effective if this paper followed a biographical outline, but it does not. While we may include a reference to the question of his childhood and historical psychoanalysis, we will jettison that point and rearrange the characteristics.

  1. Introduction: Erik Satie cultivated a child-like innocence and humor as a reaction against the overblown pretensions of the romanticists.
  2. Satie's works from the very first are characterized by a disarming simplicity.
  3. Satie's humor is that of absurdity and nonsense.
  4. Satie's abrupt juxtapositions parallel those of children's nonsense books.
  5. Conclusion: Satie's importance and charm as a composer lies in the humorous ways in which he subverted romanticism, while retaining a childlike voice.
This is much better. The three internal points clearly parallel each other. However, read the thesis carefully. You are responsible to prove not only that his works are childlike, but that this quality was a reaction against romanticism. Therefore, your point's connection to the thesis becomes clearer in the following revision:
  1. Introduction: Erik Satie cultivated a child-like innocence and humor as a reaction against the overblown pretensions of the romanticists.
  2. Satie's works from the very first are characterized by a disarming simplicity that contrasts markedly with the complexities of the Wagnerians.
  3. Satie's humor is that of absurdity and nonsense, which is often used to poke fun at adult and romantic pretensions.
  4. Satie's abrupt juxtapositions parallel those of children's nonsense books and do away with the complex development and transition sections of the romantics.
  5. Conclusion: Satie's importance and charm as a composer lies in the humorous ways in which he subverted romanticism, while retaining a childlike voice.
Now it is clear what evidence or examples are needed to support each point. Try inserting these within the outline (excepting the introduction and conclusion) as shown:
  1. Introduction: Erik Satie cultivated a child-like innocence and humor as a reaction against the overblown pretensions of the romanticists.
  2. Satie's works from the very first are characterized by a disarming simplicity that contrasts markedly with the complexities of the Wagnerians.
    Example: Gymnopedies.
    Quotes: Shattuck p. 118, 177.
  3. Satie's humor is that of childlike absurdity and nonsense, which is often used to poke fun at adult and romantic self-importance.
    Example: Le Piége de Méduse.
    Quotes: Shattuck p. 178.
  4. Satie's abrupt juxtapositions parallel those of children's nonsense books and do away with the complex development and transition sections of the romantics. Examples: Parade, Relache.
    Quotes: Shattuck p. 180, 336.
  5. Conclusion: Satie's importance and charm as a composer lies in the humorous ways in which he subverted romanticism, while retaining a childlike voice.
Of course, if it turns out that you cannot find enough evidence to support one of your points, you may have to rethink your outline or thesis.

The above example is only one possibility, even for this given thesis. The thesis you have chosen will, to some extent, dictate the form. You may have more or fewer points to make, and they may be organized in quite different ways. However you come up with an outline though, it should serve to clarify your thinking and communicate your ideas to your reader.

To recap:

  • An outline for this class should consist of a series of POINTS TO BE MADE expressed in complete sentences, not single-phrase topics,

  • The points in an outline should be largely PARALLEL, and

  • The points should DIRECTLY RELATE TO THE THESIS.

For the purposes of this class, I'm usually not interested in outline points below the roman numeral level. Those levels become important only in longer and more complex papers, say above 9 or 10 pages. In a term paper, three or four internal points are usually a good number. If there are only two, the reader may question the breadth of support for your thesis. If there are more than four, it may become difficult for your reader to keep all the points in her head to follow your argument. If you have five or more internal points, try to combine them.

One more thing: one roman numeral point is usually NOT equal to one paragraph. For papers in this class that would make paragraphs long and unwieldy. Two to four paragraphs per outline point is fine.