When you write a technical report, not only must you think of the right information to include (or exclude); you must also find a good way to arrange it. This is a two-part chapter: this part focuses on generating outline items and sequencing them; the second part focuses on turning a rough outine into a good, polished outline.

Outlines for technical reports are usually hard to handle solely in your mind; it's a little like trying to add a list of large numbers mentally. You must get report outlines in print in order to think about the arrangement of the topics within them. A good working outline serves you in at least four important ways:

Generating outline elements

If you go through a brainstorming process, you have generated a rough list of topics that you can start working with. The topic list below concerns cocombustion, which is the incineration of municipal solid waste (MSW) with conventional fuels to reduce conventional fuel consumption costs and related MSW disposal problems. Imagine that you had developed a topic list on this subject and then had narrowed the list to these topics:

Advantages of cocombustion
Steps in cocombusting MSW
Disadvantages of cocombustion
Historical background on cocombustion
Economics of cocombustion
Special components for cocombustion
Composition of MSW
Cocombustion power plant construction costs
Cocombustion power plant operating costs
Economic advantages of cocombustion
Environmental advantages of cocombustion
Characteristics of municipal solid waste (MSW)
Environmental disadvantages of cocombustion
Methods of MSW disposal

Grouping, combining and subordinating outline elements

You can tell that the list above needs serious help:

So this is how the business of generating, grouping, combining and subordinating works early in the outlining process. Outlining is a messy process so you'll probably come back to this phase again.

Sequencing outline elements

The next step in outlining is to sequence the items appropriately. There are so many different patterns of sequencing that only most common ones can be reviewed here. And, frankly, these are all pretty obvious. If they are obvious to you, skip to Elaborating the rough outline.

This list is by no means complete: but you can see that elements in it are arranged according to impact on the reader—that is, the impact the writer would like to have. Here are some excerpts of outlines where these patterns are used.

If you have ever studied computer programming, you know that commands like PRINT are simple; variable assignment commands (like LET A = 30), less simple; and FOR-NEXT loop statements, rather complex. If you were outlining a report on fundamental BASIC commands for the beginner, you'd probably start with the simple ones and work your way to the complex:

                  Simple-to-complex order

      A. PRINT
      B. LET
      C. IF-THEN
      D. FOR-NEXT
      E. DIM

If you were writing a report on cocombustion of municipal solid waste (MSW) for a city concerned about skyrocketing coal costs, you could arrange your advantages section two ways: (a) save the "reduction of coal consumption" for last in order to build up to a climax, or (b) introduce it right away to grab the citizens' attention:

    Climax order                  Attention-getting order
(least-most important)               (most-least important)

 A. Recovery of revenue from       A. Reduction of coal use and
    recyclable MSW                    and related costs
 B. Reduction of landfill          B. Reduction of landfill
    use, costs, and other re-         use, costs, and other re-
    lated problems                    lated problems
 C. Reduction of coal use          C. Recovery of revenue from
    and related costs                 recyclable MSW

  • An obvious outlining principle is to avoid creating interruptions within an outline sequence. Here's an example:

                   Outline excerpt with interruption
            I. Municipal solid waste generated in the US
               A. Total amounts of MSW
                  1. Increases since 1950
                  2. Projected increases to the year 2000
               B. Processing MSW for cocombustion
                  1. Primary storage
                  2. Grinding
                  3. Air sorting
                  4. Magnetic separating
                  5. Screening
                  6. Secondary storage
               C. Characteristics of MSW
                  1. Composition of MSW
                     a. food waste
                     b. paper and other rubbish
                     c. noncombustibles
                  2. Factors affecting enery content
                     a. moisture content
                     b. areas of MSW origination
           II. Power plant modifications for cocombustion
                       Revised outline excerpt
            I. Municipal solid waste generated in the US
               A. Total amounts of MSW
                  1. Increases since 1950
                  2. Projected increases to the year 2000
               B. Characteristics of MSW
                  1. Composition of MSW
                     a. food waste
                     b. paper and other rubbish
                     c. noncombustibles
                  2. Factors affecting enery content
                     a. moisture content
                     b. areas of MSW origination
            II. Processing MSW for cocombustion
                 A. Primary storage
                 B. Grinding
                 C. Air sorting
                 D. Magnetic separating
                 E. Screening
                 F. Secondary storage
           III. Power plant modifications for cocombustion
    In the problem version, the municipal solid waste discussion is interrupted by the MSW-processing discussion. A better arrangement would be to discuss MSW fully before going on to the discussion of how it is processed.

    Use these common arrangement principles to get your topic list into an initial rough order. The rearranged version of the topic list shown previously might look this way:

            I. Historical background
               A. Rising energy, utility costs
               B. Search for alternatives (review)
           II. Composition of MSW
          III. Special components of the cocombustion plant
           IV. Steps in the cocombustion of MSW
            V. Economics
               A. Cost to build or convert
               B. Cost to operate
               C. Cost of produced electricity
           VI. Advantages
               A. Less coal used
               B. Reduction of utility rates
               C. Less landfill used
               D. Reduction of landfill costs and needs
          VII. Disadvantages
               A. Expense of converting existing facilities
               B. Handling MSW
               C. Increased emissions
  • Elaborating the rough outline

    When you "elaborate" a rough outline, you divide and subdivide the items already listed. Even without having done much research, you'll have a fair idea of what these second- and third-level items will be.

         I. Historical background
            A. Rising costs of conventional fuels
            B. Problems with coventional MSW disposal
            C. Alternatives
        II. Composition of MSW
            A. Properties
            B. Sources
            C. Energy content
       III. Special components of the cocombustion plant
            A. Component 1
            B. Component 2
            C. Component 3
        IV. Steps in the process of cocombustion with coal
            A. Step 1
            B. Step 2
            C. Step 3

    Notice how the basic kinds of writing and organizational patterns (covered previously) are used in elaborating the rough outline. With an elaborated outline, you can begin to read and take notes: each item represents a question mark that you need to get information on. As you get this information, you can make the wording of outline items more specific: for example, Component 1 would change to Collection receptacles. Here's an excerpt of the same outline above, but much further along:

    3. Special components of the cocombustion plant
       a. collection receptacles
       b. power compaction unit
       c. storage pits
       d. incinerator feed system
          1. gravity chute
          2. ram feeder
          3. hopper
          4. furnace
          5. charging gate

    Elaborating the rough outline is essentially a process of dividing that outline using two basic principles:

    Adjusting items in an outline

    You should also make sure that items in your outline are on the right level. Here is an example of this problem and a revision:

            Unadjusted outline                   Revised outline
    A. Plant Modifications for Coc-      A. Plant modifications for Co-
       combustion                           combustion
       1. Storage areas                     1. Storage areas
       2. Conveyor lines                    2. Conveyor lines
       3. Boiler modifications              3. Boiler modifications
       4. Air control equipment             4. Air control equipment
    B. Economic Benefits                 B. Benefits of Cocombustion
    C. Environmental Benefits               1. Economic benefits
                                            2. Environmental benefits

    In this revision, the problem was solved by adding a more general item (Benefits of Cocombustion) and downshifting the original "B" and "C" items. Now, here's another example:

            Unadjusted outline                   Revised outline
    B. Environmental Benefits            B. Environmental benefits
    C. Reduction of Landfill Needs          1. Reduction of landfill
    D. Economic Benefit                        needs
                                            2. Reduction of Coal
                                         C. Economic benefits

    Here, Reduction of Landfill Needs is really a subdivision of Environmental Benefits. Downshifting it to a "1" creates a single-item entry, however. Therefore, we might add a second item like Reduction of Coal Consumption.

    I would appreciate your thoughts, reactions, criticism regarding this chapter: your responseDavid McMurrey.