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Expanding Detailed Outlines into Memorandums and those into Full Manuscripts

As most of you all know, I’ve been teaching research methods, research design and academic writing for a while now. My students ALWAYS, literally ALWAYS ask me the question:

“How do I go from having the Detailed Outline to actually writing a Memorandum (or a series of Memos) that I can then assemble into the full draft of the paper?”

This blog post answers this question, based on a Twitter thread I wrote a few days ago.

Writing at home

This is the process I outlined on Twitter. You can see the entire thread by clicking anywhere on the tweet below.

My first advice to students when writing outlines is ALWAYS FINISH THE INITIAL OUTLINE FIRST.


What is the reason for finishing the Detailed Outline first, you ask? Well, the rationale is that you will be able to see the overall argument, at a distance, from a vantage point, “bird’s eye”.

Now, another key question that my students ask me regularly:

“Professor, how do you decide what goes into your memorandum?”

Generally speaking, I try to write ONE memorandum per Triggering Question. For example, in this case: “what is ethnography?” would be an ideal Triggering Question based on which I could write a full, well developed Memorandum.

Now, for the “breaking down the big project into small pieces” part of this thread and blog post. Different people use different strategies for outlining. I teach most of them. One of them is outlining by hand (as I have been doing). Others outline directly on screen.

A few options:

Personally, I’m not tied to any model for outlining (directly in Scrivener, Word, or whichever word processor you use, by hand, or using mind maps). I find that combining both sets of techniques (digital and analog) really helps me refine and hone the final product.

Now, let’s move from the Detailed Outline to the Writing Memorandums stage.

Here’s what I do:

  1. I break down the Topic Sentence or Triggering Question into its elements.
  2. I begin a memorandum using heading-level Triggering Questions or Topic Sentences

Let’s grab the “What is Ethnography” Triggering Question, and the “Elements of Ethnography” Topic Sentence/Sub-Heading.

In my mind, there are three key elements to ethnography:

  • Observation
  • Fieldwork
  • Understanding culture.

I can use those categories and/or elements to start my Memorandum.

This is the moment when we need to READ AGAIN to make the argument and start writing the Memorandum. My students think that we read, read, read, read, and THEN WHAM BAM, there’s a paper.

No, writing requires us to think, mull over, reflect and write in smaller chunks.

The final product of the Detailed Outline can be shown below.

Now, here is the finalized Detailed-Outline-to-Memorandum product. This memo would not have been possible had I not thought of writing an Initial Outline, adding more thoughts and ideas to make it a Detailed Outline and then broken down each Triggering Question and Topic Sentence to craft a Memorandum.


Does using Triggering Questions and Topic Sentences work to stimulate thinking and help our students write?

I can 100% certify that this method works and has worked with my students (it also works for me, obviously). This method is an easy strategy to tackle Writer’s Block and the Blank Page.

I hope this blog post and the links associated are helpful to those battling papers, book chapters, theses and books!

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