Taming the Big Document: How to Use Labeled Source Documents and an Outline to Simplify the Writing Process

Long writing projects are intimidating not only because of the amount of work involved but also because it’s challenging to manage the mass of materials you have gathered in the research process. Worse yet is confronting the dilemma of what goes where when you are constructing the piece.

I have a two-step system that has seen me through several hundred articles and more than a dozen books.

The first step is to get all your source materials organized in a manageable and accessible collection. The second step is to write up an outline of your project and then key it to your source material – labeling what part from your source material goes where in the outline.

Here’s what to do for step one: Type up your handwritten notes neatly on however many pages you need and print them out. Do this quickly after you take your notes, because if your handwriting is like mine what looks legible today won’t be so clear tomorrow and in a week it will look like hieroglyphics viewed in a mirror after a pitcher of vodka martinis. Transcribing your notes also allows you to edit out unnecessary or superfluous material.

If you have pages from a book or magazine, photocopy them onto standard-size paper. Print out the relevant parts of web pages you want to cite.

Now, instead of a heap of books, magazines, notebooks, scrawled-upon napkins and matchbook covers, you have a neat sheaf of pages. I like to hole-punch them and insert them into a binder. Number the pages at the top in red marker.

For step two, make an outline of your document. Try for ten main points, hitting on what you think is important and the proper sequence in which you want to address the topics.

For example, the beginning of your outline might look like this…

1. Introduction

2. Explanation of why the issue is important

3. First example

…and so on.

Print your outline.

Next, put your source documents in one pile your left and your outline to the right.

Now, the magic happens. Go through your source documents and pick out the good parts. Underline (or highlight) and label them. Let’s say on Page One of your source document you have a quote that you think is powerful and evocative. Underline it, and then take your red marker and label it “A” in the right-hand column of the page. The quote is now coded as Page 1, Paragraph A.

A little farther down on Page One of the source documents you may have some statistics that you believe will back up an important contention in your piece. Label that paragraph as “B.”

Do this throughout all your source pages. All the good parts will be identified: Source Page 1, paragraphs A, B, C, D, Source Page 2, Paragraphs A, B, C, D, E, and so forth.

Now turn your attention to the outline. Look at it carefully and think about what information from your source documents should go where. Under each of your ten main points in the outline, write in the code for the sections of your source documents that you want to use.

Using the hypothetical “Introduction” section in the outline as an example, you may wind up with something like this:


(Use this information from the source documents…)

Page 2, paragraph C
Page 1, paragraph A
Page 8, paragraph D
Page 1, paragraph F
Page 1, paragraph G

You can create this outline/road map on the computer screen if you want, but using printed copies works best for me and doesn’t tie up valuable monitor real estate. If I have a quote I want to copy and paste from my source documents, I can always go back to the electronic version of the source documents and copy it from there.

Give this method a try. It really does make the task physically and psychologically easier – making writing a long article or report more like responding to essay questions when you already know the answer.

Author: admin

Carl Hausman is Professor of Journalism at Rowan University, the author of several books about media, and a commentator about the role of media and ethics in civic life.

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