Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Essential Outline

Writers create outlines for two main reasons: 1) outlining allows a writer to focus on listing thoughts at the lowest organizational level and on the quasi-inductive creation of categories, and 2) outlining allows a writer to focus on the highest level of organization and on the quasi-deductive elaboration of progressively lower levels. The first reason is only heuristic, and other devices may substitute; the second reason is essential. Lawyers don't usually share nonprofessionals' phobia of outlines, as they've built complex outlines in law school, where creating a personal course outline is part of the study ritual. Yet surprisingly many lawyers don't use outlines for complex appellate briefs, while some rely on outlines too much. Characteristic symptoms reflect insufficient outlining, others, overreliance on outlines, and knowing these consequences provides another perspective for evaluating a ghostwriter.

Headings serve as categories for segregating text, but devising logically exclusive headings usually requires focusing on them with and without the accompanying text. Lacking an outline the writer's ad hoc headings won't be mutually exclusive. Burdened by overlapping headings, legal writers who don't outline repeat content. Repetitiveness is the worst effect of forgoing an outline.

A brief should be organized around precise and evocative headings, which serve as signposts in the document's body and as summary in the table of contents; the second major problem linked to lack of outline is poor relatedness between headings and text. Lower level headings should cohere with the headings above and the text beneath and be parallel to other headings at the same level. A longer brief won't cohere without initial planning and subsequent adjustment, both best accomplished in an outline.

One overuse of outlines treats them as forms: transitions between sections are ignored. When a document sounds like an outline, the author probably seldom actually wrote, only outlined and transposed authoritative paraphrases or quotes. Since we accomplish much of our thinking in trying to express it, the overoutlined brief often underanalyzes.

The last form of overuse of outlines is when the author thinks of the headings exclusively in relation to the outline, not in relation to the text beneath the headings. Such an outline will be organized according to some predigested formal scheme, which doesn't make best use of headings. If a cause of action has three elements, the writer might organize the brief around each of them. He achieves logical tightness and mutual exclusivity in the outline, but he isn't telling the judge anything new. Headings should carry valuable information, not legal formulas the judge already knows. Facts should be woven through the headings, so they tell the judge what's most important in your argument, not what an argument of the kind must perforce accomplish.

These flaws are useful checkpoints, regardless of whether outlining problems caused them, but outlining problems account for their frequency.

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