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Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

Kristen Lamb — Photo

Back to School: Why Great Papers, Essays, and Blogs Need Outlines

First of all, I’d like to dedicate this blog post to Mrs. Barbara Bender who taught my high school sophomore year American Literature class. It wasn’t that the reading selections were all that riveting, or that we had any kind of “Oh, Captain, my captain,” kind of moments. What made the class so pivotal in my formation as a writer is the fact Mrs. Bender made us write papers…and we hated it.

papers, writing, blogs

Why?

Because we had to submit an OUTLINE for every single paper, and the points had to match up. The outline had to create and support a logical argument supported by evidence from start-to-finish. It was a pain in the butt. But…wouldn’t you know it, writing outlines before writing papers soon became a habit.

Once I mastered how to outline an academic paper, it was like I was unstoppable. Yes, I know. This sounds like the Passion of the Nerd. In reality though, it’s more like the Redemption of the Procrastinator. But, becoming a master outliner helped me write papers faster and get better grades every time.

papers, writing, blogs

(No, seriously, I spent an entire semester pulling procrastination punishment all-nighters every Monday night cranking out three-page papers for my anthropology of Papua New Guinea class and got an ‘A’ on every single one…all because I could outline!)

papers, writing, blogs

Whether its academic papers or blog posts, creating an outline is a skill that every writer needs, and unconsciously, every reader appreciates. And today, I’m going to share with you Mrs. Bender’s simple-but-magical outlining tips and tricks from the introduction, to the middle, to the end..

The Introduction

Just like in fiction, a good blog post or academic paper starts with a catchy opening. It can be challenging, evocative, shocking, or revelatory.

papers, writing, blogs

Then, we start to circle the topic in general, sharing reasons it is interesting, relevant, worthwhile, etc. A good technique is ‘within, without, backward, forward.’ We address why a topic is important from within the field, in relation to society in general, in the context of the past, and its potential impact going forward.

THE THESIS STATEMENT COMETH. Just like a logline for a story, the thesis statement for a paper or a blog is the BURNING REASON we are writing this. It’s the single argument that everything else—no matter how many thousands of words—supports.

papers, writing, blogs

The Plan of Attack: Right after the thesis statement come the three main points that will support our argument. It’s the old “Tell ’em what you’re gonna tell ’em,” schtick.

Here’s an example of outlining an introduction.

Papers, writing, blogs

The Middle

Now, we’re into the thick of things. We’re sligning facts and logic right and left, maybe even footnoting stuff (Heaven forbid!). But, without a coherent structure, all those facts are going to end up overwhelming us and the reader. Think “I Love Lucy” and the chocolate factory conveyor belt.

papers, writing, blogs

Whether it’s fiction or blogs or papers, the middle is always the longest and hardest part. Luckily, there’s a trick to setting up this section of the outline, from the main point down to the individual paragraphs. Okay, maybe the trick is more like the bastard child of an illicit affair between a formula and a checklist, but it’s still one of God’s creatures, and I love it.

I call it ‘The Telescoping Rule of Three.’ Catchy, non?

Yet, it is an accurate description of both the flexibility and order we need for the middle of papers and posts of all lengths. We need the limit of three to help us focus our high-level arguments. But, at the same time, we need the open-ended ability to drill way, way down into details. We can’t lose ourselves in irrelevant minutiae if we stick to The Telescoping Rule of Three. Even if we do, the structure will guide us safely back.

The Telescoping Rule of Three

The rule starts with the having a plan of attack with three main points that support the thesis statement. This isn’t to say that there are more arguments we could make to support the thesis. It’s simply that these are three points we are choosing to illustrate because we believe they are a relevant, cohesive angle.

papers, writing, blogs
Okay, not precisely relevant, but I couldn’t help it.

Once we are done with the introduction, we tackle each point as its own section. We turn it into a mini-paper, complete with its own introduction with a thesis and plan of attack. From there, we illustrate each of the supporting points with three points…aaaaand you begin to see how this rule ‘telescopes’ to expand for a dissertation or contract for a 1500-word blog post.

It’s easiest explain this with a graphic.

Papers, writing, blogs

‘Three’ is not by any means a hard and fast limit. Think of it more like a boogie board in the ocean. It can help us surf the waves with that rush of speed and ease. But, it can also help us stay afloat when we get swamped by that unexpected swell..and get salt water up our noses like a gratuitous neti pot accident that makes us cough and swallow some of the saltwater while snotting the rest of it back out into the ocean.

papers, writing, blogs
Because we can’t have too many cat memes, especially on a boogie board. Check out Kuli’s story here!

Bonus—Paragraph Structure

Because it’s all starting to come full circle now…

I know you know what’s coming.

The fact that writing a paragraph starts with an introductory sentence that states the point of the paragraph.

The fact that there are three sentences that support that point.

The fact that there is a concluding sentence that segues into the next paragraph.

It’s getting kinda trippy, amiright?

papers, writing, blogs
Don’t hate it because it’s logical.

The Conclusion (in more ways than one)

By the point, it should be 4:00 a.m., and the caffeine shakes should just be starting to kick in.

In the prehistoric times when I was in college, we didn’t have Red Bull. Instead, I drank cold, black coffee from the mini coffeemaker in my room. That’ll wake you up. And put hair on your chest.

papers, writing, blogs
All of the stages are funny-not-funny, and sorry-not-sorry for sharing.

Until I figured out the secret to writing a conclusion, I struggled with this part of a paper. I would even go so far as to shower and fold my laundry instead of writing this bit. I know, right?

However, when I discovered that a conclusion is just an introduction in reverse, it was like the clouds parted and heavenly hosts appeared bearing white chocolate mocha lattes (no whipped cream).

This is the “Tell ’em what you told ’em” part of a paper. I used to feel it was repetitive, but then I realized it was okay. That’s the point of the conclusion. We have to remind the reader why the topic is important and affirm the fact that we proved the bejeezus out of our argument.

papers, writing, blogs

Isn’t it beautiful? Doesn’t the symmetry of it all move you to tears? Don’t you feel like you can write a better, more coherent blog or get a better grade on your paper now? *sniff, wipes away lone tear*

It’s like a full-circle-reverse-rule-of-three-telescoping…oh, whatever. I need more coffee.

SHARING TIME! Tell me your best all-nighter or turned-it-in-by-the-skin-of-your-teeth story! Also, if you’d like to suggest a topic for me to use for a fake paper to illustrate using this outline, put it in the comments. I’ll pick one and work it up. Maybe we can see if I still have the old zip and polish and do it as a timed event on Twitter, LOL!

Everything You Ever Wanted – A Weekend of Cait & Kristen!

Kristen and I are having a teachapalooza this weekend, starting with my class on Friday night – Keywordpalooza: Tune in, mellow out, and learn to love keywords for Amazon.

Then, Saturday is going to be out-of-this-world (literally) with The XXX Files: The Planet X Speculative Fiction 3-Class Bundle. I’ll be geeking out on world-building for sci-fi, dystopias, apocalit, zombies, horror, paranormal, etc. Kristen and I are co-teaching how to take all that world-building and create characters we love to love and love to hate. Then, Kristen is going to wrap up the day with a master class in plotting for speculative fiction.

Even if you’re not writing this genre, there is so much here that is relevant to all fiction.

You can purchase each class individually, or, you can buy the bundle which essentially is all three classes for the price of two. And if you can’t make the classes live this weekend, they all come with a free recording so you won’t miss a thing.

Hope to see you this weekend!


Keywordpalooza: Tune in, mellow out, and learn to love keywords for Amazon

Instructor: Cait Reynolds
Price: $55.00 USD
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Friday, September 7, 2018. 7:00—9:00 p.m. EST

REGISTER HERE

It’s one of the universe’s great mysteries… the same word can both boost and drown your book in a category (mind BLOWN, man!).

Keywords also seem to evolve every five minutes…or are we the one evolving, like a butterfly having a dream of SEO (trippy, dude!)? Like gravity and Jane Fonda’s hair in ‘Barbarella,’ the popular rules for using keywords value over-inflation and the slavish following of fads.

But, like Talbot’s tweed and mother’s pearls, certain marketing strategies and techniques are enduring classics that stand the test of time. They’re not flashy like bellbottoms, nor do they yield dramatic overnight results like ironing your hair. Yet, ignore trends, and we risk getting left behind…kind of like buying electric typewriter ribbon because that whole ‘computer word processing’ thing will never take off.

This class won’t just help you turn on, tune in, and drop out of the keyword rat race. We’ll also cover:

  • Fully body contact SEO: when and where to use keywords, and what publishers know that you don’t;
  • Fantastic keywords and where to find them: which websites, lists, search engines, and Magic 8 Balls yield the best keyword research results;
  • Mix and match like a Parisienne: no, seriously, how to mix consistent ‘classic’ keywords with the latest trends like a Frenchwoman wears a crisp white shirt with this season’s Hermes scarf;
  • Same bat genre, same bat book, different bat keywords?: learn the differences between keywords for ebooks, print, and audio;
  • And so much more!

A recording of this class is also included with purchase.


Building Planet X: Out-of-This-World-Building for Speculative Fiction

Instructor: Cait Reynolds
Price: $55.00 USD
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Saturday, September 8, 2018. 10:00 a.m.—12:00 p.m. EST

REGISTER HERE

Speculative fiction may be a way of seeing the world ‘through a glass darkly,’ but it can also be one of the clearest, most pointed, and even most disturbing ways of seeing the truth about ourselves and our society.

It’s not just the weird stuff that makes the settings of speculative fiction so unnerving. It’s the way ‘Normal’ casually hangs out at the corner of ‘Weird’ and ‘Familiar.’

But it’s trickier than it seems to get readers to this intersection without letting them get bogged down in the ‘Swamp of Useless Detail’ or running them into the patch of ‘Here be Hippogriffs’ (when the story is clearly about zombies). How do we create a world that is easy to slip into, absorbingly immersive, yet not distracting from the character arcs and plots?

This class will cover:

  • Through the looking glass darkly: How to take a theme/issue/message and create a world that drives it home to the reader.
  • Ray guns and data chips: The art of showing vs. telling in world-building.
  • Fat mirror vs. skinny mirror: What is scarce in the world? Valuable? Forbidden? Illegal? What do people want vs. what they have vs. what they need?
  • Drawing a line in the sand: What are the laws, taboos, limits of this world? What is unacceptable to you/the reader/the character? How are they the same or different, and why it matters.
  • Is Soylent Green gluten-free and other vital questions: All the questions you need to ask about your world, but didn’t know…and how to keep track of all the answers.

A recording of this class is also included with purchase.


Populating Planet X: Creating Realistic, Relatable Characters in Speculative Fiction

Instructors: Cait Reynolds & Kristen Lamb
Price: $55.00 USD
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Saturday, September 8, 2018. 1:00—3:00 p.m. EST

REGISTER HERE

It’s a time-honored tradition in literature to take an ordinary person out of his or her normal life and throw them into a whirlwind of extraordinary circumstances (zombies/tyrants/elves/mean girls optional). After all, upsetting the Corellian apple cart is what great storytellers do best.

It’s also that very same ordinariness and normalcy that first gets the reader to identify then empathize with the characters and stick with them (and the book) through to the end.

But, what do we do when our ‘ordinary’ protagonist lives with a chip implant and barcode tattoo, and our antagonist happens to be a horde of flesh-eating aliens…or a quasi-fascist regime bent on enforcing social order, scientific progress above ethics, and strict backyard composting regulations (those MONSTERS!)?

How the heck is the reader supposed to identify with that? I mean, seriously. Regulating backyard composting? It would never happen in a free society.

This leaves us with two challenges in creating characters for speculative fiction: 1. How to use the speculative world-building to shape the backgrounds, histories, and personalities of characters, and 2. How to balance the speculative and the relatable to create powerful, complex character arcs.

This class will cover:

  • Resistance is futile: What does normal look like for the characters? What’s different or strange, and how to get readers to accept that retinal scans and Soylent Green are just par for the course.
  • These aren’t the droids you’re looking for: What are the discordant elements around the characters? What are their opinions about it? What are the accepted consequences or outcomes?
  • You gonna eat that?: Whether it’s running from brain-eating zombies or fighting over dehydrated space rations, what is important both physically and emotionally to the character? What is in short supply or forbidden?
  • We’re all human here (even the ones over there with tentacles): The basic principles and techniques of creating psychological touchpoints readers can identify with.
  • Digging out the implant with a grapefruit spoon: In a speculative world, what are the stakes for the character? The breaking point? The turning point?
  • And so much more!!!

A recording of this class is also included with purchase.


Beyond Planet X: Mastering Speculative Fiction

Instructor: Kristen Lamb
Price: $55.00 USD
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Saturday, September 8, 2018. 4:00—6:00 p.m. EST

REGISTER HERE

Speculative fiction is an umbrella term used to describe narrative fiction with supernatural or futuristic elements. This includes but it not necessarily limited to fantasy, science fiction, horror, utopian, dystopian, alternate history, apocalyptic fiction, post-apocalyptic fiction.

Basically, all the weird stuff.

Gizmos, gadgets, magic, chainsaws, demons, fantastical worlds and creatures are not enough and never have been. Whether our story is set on Planet X, in the sixth dimension of hell, on a parallel world, or on Earth after Amazon Prime gained sentience and enslaved us all, we still must have a core human story that is compelling and relatable.

In this class we will cover:

  • Discovering the core human story problem.
  • How to plot these unique genres.
  • Ways to create dimensional and compelling characters.
  • How to harness the power of fear and use psychology to add depth and layers to our story.
  • How to use world-building to enhance the story, not distract from it.

***A recording of this class is also included with purchase.


The XXX Files: The Planet X Speculative Fiction 3-Class Bundle

Instructors: Cait Reynolds & Kristen Lamb
Price: $110.00 USD (It’s LITERALLY one class FREE!)
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Saturday, September 8, 2018. 10:00 a.m.—6:00 p.m. EST.

REGISTER HERE

Recordings of all three classes is also included with purchase.

6 thoughts on “Back to School: Why Great Papers, Essays, and Blogs Need Outlines”

  1. Elizabeth DrakeElizabeth Drake

    Wow, this is the 5 Paragraph essay from my AP European History class! I then used it in English, AP US History, and ALL through college.

    My AP Euro teacher *drilled* that into our heads, and we wrote AT LEAST one of these a week. For history, there were also 4 key things you were going to discuss as the underlying reasons: political, social, economic, and military. Pick 3 in the 5 paragraph essay. Usually the first three were the best.

    Obviously, this didn’t always apply to what you were writing about, but that class and drilling us on the way to write for the AP exam was a savior throughout college. My freshman English class didn’t even come close to preparing me like the high school class did.

    Reply
    September 6, 2018
  2. Deborah MakariosDeborah Makarios

    Yay for the anthropology of Papua New Guinea! (I grew up there.)

    I once spent a week and a half writing one of two essays I had due, only to find that I’d left myself a day and a half to research and write the other. The lecturer noted “conclusion seems rushed” which may have had something to do with him catching me handing it in 5 minutes before the deadline!

    I use outlines for scenes every day – I reckon it’s the only way to make that blank page cower before you instead of vice versa.

    Reply
    September 6, 2018
  1. Why I hate...but do it anyway - Kristen Lamb

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