Before you begin to write any paper, it is a good idea to organize your thoughts by writing an outline. An outline simply a written method of organizing information so that you can determine what you are going to include in your paper, where you are going to include it, and what details you need to communicate about it, in other words outlines help you, the writer, determine the relative importance, order, and details for the different topics you wish to communicate. In terms of format, you can write an outline using key words, phrases, complete sentences and/or any mix thereof that works best for you. The most frequently used outline system uses Roman numerals, e.g., I, II, III, etc. to identify major points. These usually become the topic sentences when you turn the outline into paragraphs. Minor points that provide supporting evidence for the major points are designated using capital letters such as A, B, C, etc. If you need to include details about a minor point then these are identified underneath the relevant minor point by Arabic numerals (1, 2, 3, etc.). An example outline showing one approach to an outline for this section is illustrated below:
- What is an outline
- Method of organizing information
- II. Format of an outline
- Major points
- Represented using Roman numerals
- Represent major ideas or topic sentences
- Minor points
- Represented using capital letters
- Represent supporting evidence
- Represented using Arabic numerals
- Represent details about minor points
The outline need not be perfect but the more time and thought you put into it the easier you will find it to write your paper. In fact that is the whole point. If you take the time to create a good outline, when you actually sit down to write your paper, you will be able to concentrate on how to say what you want to say effectively, i.e., writing, rather than worrying about content.
When you first sit down to work on any writing project, you should first strive to create an outline of the content. Once you have an outline, you should use the outline in order to create a draft of your paper. The idea behind a draft is that it is a good mechanism for getting all of your ideas down on paper. If you feel that you must express everything perfectly, it is generally harder to write. On the other hand, if you know that you will be revising the paper, it is much, much easier to get your ideas down on paper!
In creating a draft, focus on the “big picture.” What is the essential message you want to convey? What are the key points you need to communicate in order to get that message across? As you develop your draft, think about how you can help the reader see the structure of your argument – the key points and the overall message. A good way to do this is to break your paper down into appropriately titled sections that help orient the reader.
As you begin to identify the information you need to include in each section this will help you identify paragraphs. Remember each paragraph in a paper is a series of sentences discussing a theme. The first sentence, the so-called “topic sentence” should identify the theme for that paragraph.
The final and perhaps most important step in writing any form of written communication should be proofreading. When you begin your writing project always allow time at the end to proofread your work. Plan to read your paper through at least twice. Read the paper through once focusing on form and the second time on content. The first time through verify spelling, grammar, and stylistic issues. The second time through ask yourself if your writing will make sense to someone else. If the document is relatively short, reading it aloud can be very helpful in this regard. If not, if you can afford to set the document aside for a day or two and come back to it, you may be able to gain needed perspective to review and revise your paper.
Microsoft Word has several features that can be very useful in proofreading your written work. These include the “spelling and grammar” feature and the thesaurus. The “spelling and grammar” feature will allow you to step through your document and revise for spelling, grammar, and style. To proof stylistic issues you will need to select “grammar and style” on the proofing tab in the “writing style” pull-down menu. This feature is also useful as it can provide you with an indication of the level of readability (“Flesh reading ease” and “Flesh-Kincaid Grade Level”) of your document. A wavy red line underneath a word in your Word document indicates a word that may be misspelled. Unfortunately, the default dictionary for Word does not include many scientific or engineering terms. Consequently, many technical terms may be underlined in your document but may be spelled correctly. You can add words to the dictionary in Word so over time you will find use of the “spelling and grammar” feature increasingly valuable.