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Writing a Complete-Sentence Outline

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Writing a complete-sentence outline forces you to think more concretely about your project than you may be used to doing early in your project. It may feel to you that to write an outline in complete sentences that then become topic sentences in your actual paper is putting the cart before the horse—how can you know what you're going to say when you're still just gathering and organizing information?

Well, yes. But this is an example of what often seems counter-intuitive in graduate-level writing: you need to know what you're going to say much earlier in the process than seems reasonable. That is, you need to have a good idea of your conclusion and how you'll put your project together almost before you start your research. That's why there are two research steps we recommend.

The first is to pass your eye over what's readily available to you so you can choose what you're going to cover based on what you'll have. (One thing's for sure: you'll never have enough time, however much time you have, so you must have some time-saving, thought-concretizing tools in hand.) From this quick scan, you create your research question. This question is one of the most valuable tools you’ll have for your research. Why? Because it helps you wade through possible sources. If a source helps answer your research question, it’s in. If it doesn’t, even if it’s wildly interesting, it’s out.

The second is to firm up the sources you'll use. But notice: you do this AFTER you've created your research question, which comes AFTER you've done your first research step. In fact, in many cases you'll have your outline sketched out before or while you're doing your research.

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