Power Tools: Finding, Narrowing, Outlining Topics


The following section was originally part of Power Tools for Technical Writing, published by Harcourt, but taken out because of length considerations. This section was part of a chapter made up of the following:
  1. Finding topics—provides strategies for finding topics for technical-writing projects.
  2. Narrowing topics—provides strategies for focusing a writing project on a specific, manageable topic, for reducing a hopelessly large topic to something that can be done in a reasonable or required amount of time.
  3. Outlining writing projects—provides techniques and guidelines for developing outlines for writing projects.

How Do You Create an Outline?

The following provides a review of creating and finetuning outlines as well as essential format and style guidelines.

Outlining Basics. Creating an outline as essentially a process of sorting, subgrouping, and sequencing, as the following steps show:

  1. Generate an outline-brainstorming list. To get started, brainstorm as many related topics and subtopics as you can. This provides you some "raw material" to start outlining with. If you have trouble thinking of topics and subtopics, see "What to Say—What to Write About?" in Chapter 22.

    Outline brainstorming list
    Jot down as many topics as you think of, not worrying about order, sequence, grouping, or subordination.
    Costs to build a system or purchase a kit Equipment needed for a home system Light sources required for a home system
    Building a home hydroponics system Space needed for a home system Nutrients required for hydroponics systems
    Temperature control equipment Hydroponics kits for home use Tips for hydroponic growing
    Flooding and draining schedules What to grow; what not to grow "Hydroponics" defined
    Costs to run a hydroponics system How a hydroponics system works Routine chores for managing a system
    Taste and nutrients comparisons Automating a hydroponics system Maintenance for a home hydroponics system
    Expected yields from a hydroponics system Special problems involved in hydroponics gardening History of hydroponics gardening
    Increasing interest in hydroponics gardening Hydroponics literature Hydroponics societies, organizations
    Commercial hydroponics product companies Commercial hydroponics growers Finetuning a home hydroponics system
    Case studies: home hydroponics systems Components of a hydroponics system Design considerations for a hydroponics system
    Comparisons: hydroponics vs. regular gardening Benefits of hydroponic gardening Increasing interest in hydroponic gardening

  2. Sort the outline items—get rid of the unrelated ones. While you must throw out topics that have no place in your project, some may be useful for a sentence or two in the introduction or the conclusion.

    Sorted outlining list (but not grouped or sequenced)
    Costs to build a system or purchase a kit Equipment needed for a home system Light sources required for a home system
    Comparisons: hydroponics vs. regular gardening Space needed for a home system Nutrients required for hydroponics systems
    Temperature control equipment Case studies: home hydroponics systems Expected yields from a hydroponics system
    Costs to run a hydroponics system How a hydroponics system works Routine chores for managing a system
    Taste and nutrients comparisons Automating a hydroponics system Components of a hydroponics system
    Increasing interest in hydroponics gardening Hydroponics literature Hydroponics societies, organizations
    Design considerations for a hydroponics system xxxx Suitable vegetables for hydroponic gardens

  3. Create logical groupings of outline items. Picture a pile of fruit to sort into baskets: lemons in the lemon basket; apples in the apple basket; oranges in the orange basket. But wait—there are different kinds of apples. Macintoshes go in the Macintosh basket; Pippins, in the Pippins basket; Winesaps, in the Winesaps basket. The process is hardly different for informational topics and subtopics:

    Grouped outlining list (but not subordinated or sequenced)
    What does it cost? What do you need? Components of a hydroponics system
    Space needed for a home system
    Costs to build a system or purchase a kit
    Design considerations for a hydroponics system
    Equipment needed for a home system
    Light sources required for a home system
    Temperature control equipment
    Nutrients required for hydroponics systems
    Costs to run a hydroponics system
    How does it? Does it work? Comparisons: hydroponics vs. regular gardening
    How a hydroponics system works
    Case studies: home hydroponics systems
    What do you have to do? Is it a hassle? Routine chores for managing a system
    Automating a hydroponics system
    What is the yield? Suitable vegetables for hydroponic gardens
    Expected yields from a hydroponics system
    Taste and nutrients comparisons

  4. Subordinate outline items. Another step requires subgrouping—subordination —of items. When you "subordinate," you create a descriptive category for them and then downshift the items into that category. For example, potato, lemon, apple, lime, squash, orange, cabbage, and spinach can be grouped into fruits and vegetables. To outline these things, make "Fruits" roman numeral I; make lime, apple, orange A, B, and C. Make "Vegetables" roman numeral II and potato, squash, cabbage, and spinach A, B, C, and D. (The A, B, C, and D items are "subordinate" to the I and II items.)

    Outlining list with subordination (but not sequenced)
    Notice the subordination of items in the costs section (components, design, system costs):
    Introduction Background: increasing interest in hydroponics
    Topic and purpose
    Audience
    Overview
    What does it cost?
    What do you need?
    Components of a hydroponics system
    Equipment needed for a home system
    Light sources required for a home system
    Temperature control equipment
    Nutrients required for hydroponics systems
    Design considerations for a hydroponics system
    Space needed for a home system
    Location for a home system
    Different designs for hydroponics systems
    Hydroponics system costs
    Costs to run a hydroponics system
    Costs to build a system or purchase a kit
    How does it? Does it work? Comparisons: hydroponics vs. regular gardening
    How a hydroponics system works
    Case studies: home hydroponics systems
    What do you have to do? Is it a hassle? Routine chores for managing a system
    Automating a hydroponics system
    What is the yield? Suitable vegetables for hydroponic gardens
    Expected yields from a hydroponics system
    Taste and nutrients comparisons

  5. Sequence outline items. And still another step in creating an outline requires sequencing of topics and subtopics. Arrange outline items according to some pattern: general >> specific, basic >> advanced, start >> finish, simple >> complex, at-rest >> in-motion, description >> operation, or fundamentals >> applications. (See Chapter 20 for more sequencing patterns.)

    Outlining list:
    sorted, grouped, subordinated, sequenced
    How does it? Does it work? How a hydroponics system works
    Comparisons: hydroponics vs. regular gardening
    Case studies: home hydroponics systems
    What is the yield? Suitable vegetables for hydroponic gardens
    Expected yields from a hydroponics system
    Taste and nutrients comparisons
    What do you have to do? Is it a hassle? Routine chores for managing a system
    Automating a hydroponics system
    What does it cost?
    What do you need?
    Design considerations for a hydroponics system
    Space needed for a home system
    Location for a home system
    Different designs for hydroponics systems
    Components of a hydroponics system
    Equipment needed for a home system
    Light sources required for a home system
    Temperature control equipment
    Nutrients required for hydroponics systems
    Hydroponics system costs
    Costs to run a hydroponics system
    Costs to build a system or purchase a kit

    "How does it work—does it work?" must come first. We can't talk about benefits, costs, hassles, or anything else until we have explained what it is and how it works. The next section can get into the produce: what can you grow, what's the yield, and how does it compare. Once that's established, we can ask whether it is a hassle. And after that, we can get into design and cost. This instance of high-level sequencing is rather like a sales job: don't discuss costs and requirements until people are interested and convinced that hydroponic gardening works and is fun.

    Notice the sequencing in section entitled "What is the yield?" First, explain which vegetables are suitable for this method. Then discuss what sorts of yields to expect. And then finally, because some think that hydroponically grown vegetable are less nutritious and less tasty, address that issue.

  6. Outline the introduction. All introductions must indicate topic and purpose, audience, and situation; provide an overview of the topics to be covered; and present some minimal background—but not necessarily in this order. In thinking background to include, review your brainstorming list for ideas.

    Introduction Background: increasing interest in hydroponics
    Topic, purpose, scope
    Audience
    Overview

    In this introduction:

    • Scope indicates what we are not covering: this is an overview of home hydroponic gardens—not detailed now-to instructions, not detailed research results, not details on large commercial hydroponic farms.
    • Audience is people interested in starting a small-scale hydroponic system in their home, people who may be gardeners but know nothing about hydroponics.
    • Overview indicates what we'll discuss: logistics and practicality of hydroponic gardening; quantity and quality of the produce; amount of work and maintenance required; and design, cost and equipment.
    • Background helps define the topic and get the report off to a good start and provides something to spark readers' interest: perhaps mention the benefits and ease as well as the growing popularity of hydroponics (no pun intended).

  7. Outline the conclusion. Similarly, review your brainstorming list for content to put in the conclusion. Conclusions can summarize what went before, draw an actual logical conclusion based on the preceding, or touch generally on a related topic.

    Conclusion Summary
    Hydroponics literature
    Hydroponics societies, organizations

    This conclusion provides a summary of what's been discussed (hydroponics really does work, it's not a big hassle, the produce is good, and it doesn't cost much to get started) and cites literature on hydroponic gardening as well as hydroponic-gardening clubs and organizations, which readers can use to learn more.

Outline Format and Style. Once you've gotten the topics and subtopics for an outline sorted, grouped, subordinated, and sequenced, you can start applying standard outlining format and style. Take a close look at the following outline:

Final outline—All the way from "gardening"!

I. Introduction
A. Background: increasing interest in hydroponics
B. Topic, purpose, scope
C. Audience
D. Overview

II. Hydroponics Systems: Operation and Feasibility
A. Operation of a hydroponics system
B. Comparisons: hydroponics vs. regular gardening
C. Case studies: home hydroponics systems

III. Hydroponic Produce: Quantity and Quality
A. Suitable vegetables for hydroponic gardens
B. Expected yields from a hydroponics system
C. Taste and nutrient comparisons

IV. Routine Operation and Maintenance
A. Routine chores for managing a hydroponics system
B. Automation of a hydroponics system

V. Design, Components, and Costs
A. Design considerations for a hydroponics system
1. Space needed for a home system
2. Location for a home system
3. Different designs for hydroponics systems
B. Components of a hydroponics system
1. Equipment needed for a home system
2. Light sources required for a home system
3. Temperature control equipment
4. Nutrients required for hydroponics systems
C. Hydroponics system costs
1. Costs to build a system or purchase a kit
2. Costs to run a hydroponics system

VI. Conclusion
A. Summary
B. Hydroponics literature
C. Hydroponics societies, organizations

Notice the following details in this outline:


Workshop—Outlining topics

For practice and workshop material on narrowing, see outlining practice.


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