Guide to Grammar and Writing


IV. Preparing and Using an Outline



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IV. Preparing and Using an Outline


Using an outline can help you organize your material and can also help you discover connections between pieces of information that you weren't aware of when you first conceived the plan of your paper. It can also make you aware of material that is not really relevant to the purposes of your paper or material that you have covered before and should therefore be removed.

A Working Outline might be only an informal list of topics and subtopics which you are thinking of covering in your paper. Sometimes, however, an instructor might require that a working outline be submitted at the beginning of your work; then your instructor might suggest ways in which the work needs to be further developed or cut back. Your instructor might also see that you're trying to accomplish too much or too little for the scope of the assignment he or she has in mind. The working outline can be revised as you discover new material and get new ideas that ought to go into your paper. Most word processing programs have outlining features with automatic formatting that make it easy to create and revise outlines. It is a good idea to keep copies of old outlines in a computer folder in case new versions of the outline lead you in false directions that you will later have to abandon.

A Final Outline should enhance the organization and coherence of your research paper. Instructors sometimes require that a final outline be submitted along with the final version of your paper. Material that is not relevant to the purpose of your paper as revealed in your outline should be excised from the paper; if portions of your outline seem weak in comparison to others, more research may be required to create a sense of balance in your argument and presentation.

Outlines can be organized according to your purposes. Are you attempting to show the chronology of some historical development, the cause-and-effect relationship between one phenomenon and another, the process by which something is accomplished, or the logic of some position? Are you defining or analyzing something? Are you comparing or contrasting one thing to another? Presenting an argument (one side or both)?

In any case, try to bring related material together under general headings and arrange sections so they relate logically to each other. An effective introduction will map out the journey your reader is about to take, and a satisfactory conclusion will wrap up the sequence of ideas in a nice package.

A final outline can be written as a topic outline, in which you use only short phrases to suggest ideas, or as a sentence outline, in which you use full sentences (even very brief paragraphs) to show the development of ideas more fully. If your instructor requires an outline, follow consistently whichever plan he or she prefers.



The MLA Handbook suggests using a descending outline.

Logic requires that if you have an "A" in your paper, you need to have a "B"; a "1" requires a "2," and so forth.


V. A Statement on Plagiarism


Using someone else's ideas or phrasing and representing those ideas or phrasing as our own, either on purpose or through carelessness, is a serious offense known as plagiarism. "Ideas or phrasing" includes written or spoken material, of course — from whole papers and paragraphs to sentences, and, indeed, phrases — but it also includes statistics, lab results, art work, etc. "Someone else" can mean a professional source, such as a published writer or critic in a book, magazine, encyclopedia, or journal; an electronic resource such as material we discover on the World Wide Web; another student at our school or anywhere else; a paper-writing "service" (online or otherwise) which offers to sell written papers for a fee.

Let us suppose, for example, that we're doing a paper for Music Appreciation on the child prodigy years of the composer and pianist Franz Liszt and that we've read about the development of the young artist in several sources. In Alan Walker's book Franz Liszt: The Virtuoso Years (Ithaca: 1983), we read that Liszt's father encouraged him, at age six, to play the piano from memory, to sight-read music and, above all, to improvise. We can report in our paper (and in our own words) that Liszt was probably the most gifted of the child prodigies making their mark in Europe in the mid-nineteenth century — because that is the kind of information we could have gotten from a number of sources; it has become what we call common knowledge.

However, if we report on the boy's father's role in the prodigy's development, we should give proper credit to Alan Walker. We could write, for instance, the following: Franz Liszt's father encouraged him, as early as age six, to practice skills which later served him as an internationally recognized prodigy (Walker 59). Or, we could write something like this: Alan Walker notes that, under the tutelage of his father, Franz Liszt began work in earnest on his piano playing at the age of six (59). Not to give Walker credit for this important information is plagiarism.

Some More Examples


(The examples below were originally written by the writing center staff at an esteemed college; that institution has asked us to remove its name from this Web page.) The original text from Elaine Tyler May's "Myths and Realities of the American Family" reads as follows:

Because women's wages often continue to reflect the fiction that men earn the family wage, single mothers rarely earn enough to support themselves and their children adequately. And because work is still organized around the assumption that mothers stay home with children, even though few mothers can afford to do so, child-care facilities in the United States remain woefully inadequate.

Here are some possible uses of this text. As you read through each version, try to decide if it is a legitimate use of May's text or a plagiarism.

Version A:


Since women's wages often continue to reflect the mistaken notion that men are the main wage earners in the family, single mothers rarely make enough to support themselves and their children very well. Also, because work is still based on the assumption that mothers stay home with children, facilities for child care remain woefully inadequate in the United States.

Plagiarism: In Version A there is too much direct borrowing of sentence structure and wording. The writer changes some words, drops one phrase, and adds some new language, but the overall text closely resembles May's. Even with a citation, the writer is still plagiarizing because the lack of quotation marks indicates that Version A is a paraphrase, and should thus be in the writer's own language.

Version B:


As Elaine Tyler May points out, "women's wages often continue to reflect the fiction that men earn the family wage" (588). Thus many single mothers cannot support themselves and their children adequately. Furthermore, since work is based on the assumption that mothers stay home with children, facilities for day care in this country are still "woefully inadequate." (May 589).

Plagiarism: The writer now cites May, so we're closer to telling the truth about the relationship of our text to the source, but this text continues to borrow too much language.

Version C:


By and large, our economy still operates on the mistaken notion that men are the main breadwinners in the family. Thus, women continue to earn lower wages than men. This means, in effect, that many single mothers cannot earn a decent living. Furthermore, adequate day care is not available in the United States because of the mistaken assumption that mothers remain at home with their children.

Plagiarism: Version C shows good paraphrasing of wording and sentence structure, but May's original ideas are not acknowledged. Some of May's points are common knowledge (women earn less than men, many single mothers live in poverty), but May uses this common knowledge to make a specific and original point and her original conception of this idea is not acknowledged.

Version D:


Women today still earn less than men — so much less that many single mothers and their children live near or below the poverty line. Elaine Tyler May argues that this situation stems in part from "the fiction that men earn the family wage" (588). May further suggests that the American workplace still operates on the assumption that mothers with children stay home to care for them (589).

This assumption, in my opinion, does not have the force it once did. More and more businesses offer in-house day-care facilities. . . .



No Plagiarism: The writer makes use of the common knowledge in May's work, but acknowledges May's original conclusion and does not try to pass it off as his or her own. The quotation is properly cited, as is a later paraphrase of another of May's ideas.


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