Tag Archives: outlines
Last week, I posted part one of the series “How to get unstuck while writing your personal statement,” where I covered how to unstick yourself when stuck choosing a statement topic. For Part 2, I’m covering what to do when you’re at the draft-writing stage.
If you’re stuck… and you have a topic, but can’t start your first draft.
Before beginning your draft, you want to ensure that:
- You have a solid argument.
- This argument is supported by relevant evidence– whether it’s anecdotal or describing relevant work or school experience.
- Your topic is explained thematically– meaning, it is a theme that runs through your statement/argument, connecting all your points.
- It ends solidly, tying off all ends, so that it is impossible to poke holes in your argument.
It’s a lot, I know. But, there is hope.
In a previous post, I covered how to organize your topic around a basic argument structure. Those basic principles can be used during the outlining process, which would then get you into a prime position to start writing your first draft.
The answers to all the points I’ve raised above can be seen during the outlining process. Laying out all your material at hand in bulleted points and organizing them in a structure will allow you to get a birds-eye view of your statement as a whole. Doing so will make assessing your statement that much easier, and will allow you to make the appropriate edits.
You’ll also be able to ascertain the weak points of your argument and fix them– whether it’s a certain point needs further explanation or to integrated better into your statement, or if you’re providing too much information and getting too far away from your argument.
Of course, the most brilliant thing about outlining is that it can help you get out of a creative rut. When outlining, you’re forced to think or even reconsider aspects of your topic in new ways, which can allow for new material. This is, in a sense, a more advanced method of brainstorming that can help get your juices flowing to start your first draft. Before you know it, you’ll understand your topic and your aim that much more clearly and will be able to start working on a successful first draft.
Next week, in the final part of this series, I’ll cover how to get unstuck when you’ve already written your first/second/fifteenth draft.
So, you’ve been working on your personal statement. You’ve brainstormed, you’ve outlined, You might even be done with your first draft. But… you’re not getting anywhere.
It’s okay if you feel a little stuck– it happens to everyone. And, people get stuck at all different points of their statement-writing process. So, I’ve written this helpful guide-series that will show you how to get unstuck, whether you haven’t chosen a topic, are hammering out your first draft, or trying to nail down your final draft. Over the next couple of weeks I’ll be covering different points of typical “stickiness” and how to get unstuck from them.
If you’re stuck…. and you don’t have a topic yet:
If you’re in the very beginning stages of just formulating your topic, it’s best if you start with some brainstorming or outlining before beginning your draft. Even if you do have a topic, it’s often helpful to still brainstorm to help tweak your topic and refresh your writing muscles (and your mind).
Start thinking about how your experiences have molded and shaped you. How did your experiences during undergrad shape your maturity and understanding? If you’ve been out of school for a while, how did your later positions shape you? What sort of trajectory has your life taken thus far? What has brought you to this point? Consider your answers– how will these affect you in the future, as a law student? As a working attorney?
I’ve posed these questions to coax out a potential argument about,the wealth of material you have scattered in your resume and in your mind. The problem may well be that you have so much to choose from, it’s overwhelming. I know the temptation exists to start to work on a draft right away and, if you really feel comfortable doing this, try. However, think about what I’ve just asked here while you brainstorm– just start writing down what comes to mind in a brief, bulleted list, without the pressure of putting it into a formal draft. Think a bit and see if you can come up. Write down everything you come up with; your material, somehow, has to directly relate to you and your experience.
Then, read over and evaluate what you came up with. See how you can make this all work, and how this relates to you. Do you feel comfortable with it? Can you take it further? You may end up going through many cycles of the above process- twice, three times, you name it. Regardless of how many times you brainstorm, it’s important that you do it. By brainstorming and even brainstorming repeatedly, you will inevitably come up with something good, something you can work with, and something you can write about well.
Next week, I’ll be covering how to get unstuck when writing your first draft, part 2.
Many students come to me when they are at a loss. They have worked on draft after draft, corrected every misplaced comma and spelling mistake, and chose each word meticulously. They have great topics and great experiences to choose from. So, “why isn’t this working?”
The most common mistake I’ve encountered, even including grammar and syntax, is disorganization. There are too many things to say, not enough words to say them in, and they’re in a rush to say them all.
I’ve discussed in a previous post the idea of the personal statement being a form of branding. Now, I’m taking it one step further. With a personal statement, you are asked, essentially, to devise an argument: you are asked to argue why you are an ideal candidate for the admitting class. Regardless of what you end up writing your personal statement about, or how you decide to go about the statement itself, your end-goal is to make this argument, effectively. That is, your goal is to convince the admissions counselor of your side of the argument– which is, of course, admittance.
So, how does one make this argument, effectively?
One of the principles of rhetoric, according to our ancient Greek friends, is disposito, or arrangement– the organization of the argument itself. A large part of the compelling, persuasive strength of an effective argument lies in this organization– the clarity of not only what you’re arguing but also of how you’re arguing it.
With that said, the best way to organize your essay (and your entire thought process, too) is to make an outline.
I know, I know– outlines are usually stressed when talking about writing papers or much longer essays, but they are just as applicable to personal statements.
When you write an outline, all sorts of magical things happen. You will not only be able to organize your essay, but you’ll also be able to fully flesh out what your topic is, in a clear and succinct way.
Many students write about their work/school/life experiences, leading to some sort of conclusion as to why this has brought them to a particular point. Sometimes, this may be about an obstacle or problem of some sort– whether it be professional, academic, or personal– that had lead to a life change or achievement or development of a particular skill set. Others may forgo this model and choose to write about an anecdote that highlights their personal qualities or work ethic.
Regardless of what your topic is, you have to expand upon it enough to create a framework, a structure around which you will build your statement. It, in other words, has to form your main argument.
Experiences —> Problems/Issues Raised —> Solution
This is a quick mock up of a diagram I had drafted up for one of my students. To create this, I took her topic (how working as a case worker in foster care has led her to pursue legislation) and boiled it down to its most basic elements– through her experience, significant issues and obstacles were raised, leading her to propose a solution. The purpose of this diagram is to visualize an argument structure. Seeing how your argument is formed, even in the most rudimentary way, makes writing your statement remarkably easier. Creating a visual can be all the difference between setting up the foundations to your statement and staring at a blank page in a panic.
Once you create a diagram of your argument, you’ll start to see a theme, or even a number of themes, present in your statement. Whether it’s your love for community-building or your own sharp aptitude and drive, these themes will build upon the framework you’ve just created.
These thematic elements are the pieces you will use to build upon your framework– they form the muscular system on top of the skeleton. Together, they are the solid core of your argument. The rest of your statement– the specific examples, quotes, or other creative elements– will be organized around this core. This is when your outline comes in.
How you outline your statement is up to you– you can use a (albeit more advanced) linear diagram like what I had just shown you or simply a bulleted list. For those looking for a more spatial outline, I advise not to use a brainmap as it will be too confusing and unstructured (but I definitely recommend using one during topic formulation). Either way, you want to use an outline to further visualize how your argument will unfold. With everything– your argument and its structure and the specific examples used to develop your story– laid out in front of you, you will be able to organize your ideas and your thoughts better. (Whew!) From there, you can begin to piece your statement together, with a clearer sense of direction and a much-clearer head.
Paragraphs are incredibly important– whether you’re writing a short response paper or an epic long dissertation, you need them.
Without them, your writing will seem like a long, unedited diatribe– endless lines of unorganized information that will lose your readers and your professor.
In order to fully understand what paragraphs are and how to fully use them, it’s helpful if you think of them in the following ways:
– Paragraphs are units of composition.
Think of each paragraph as a separate unit, an individual nugget or dose of information. Each new bit of information should be showcased to your reader, separately. This helps you, the writer, separate your topics and develop your overall argument in a logical and organized fashion. For the reader, your argument is more digestible and easier to read.
So, with that said…
– Paragraphs should always introduce a new idea.
Whether you are subdividing a topic at hand or introducing an entirely different topic, paragraphs should contain new, unique, pieces of information that are parts of a cohesive whole.
Some examples where your paper should have a natural paragraph break are:
– when there is a change in setting or time (such as discussing periods in history or different geographical locations)
– when you are citing and explaining a specific case as an example, or
– when you are presenting an additional argument or counter-argument
– in introduction of a set of new arguments/topics or in conclusion or them, or of your paper.
– Paragraphs should begin with topic sentences.
In order to fully accomplish what I said above, each paragraph should state its new topic within the first two sentences. By doing so, your reader will understand that you are transitioning from the previous topic to the next, how you’re doing so and why. You would also be preparing your reader (and your professor) for what you will be outlining further in the paragraph and throughout your argument as a whole.
Using transitional words or phrases are a good start. Here are a few examples:
– Adding information: Also, as well, besides
– Comparing ideas: Likewise, similarly
– Contrasting ideas: At the same time, conversely, even so, in contrast, nevertheless,
– Using an example: For example, for instance, in other words, specifically,
– Continuing a previous idea: Later, meanwhile, next, subsequently, then
– Following from a previous idea: accordingly, as a result, consequently, as such, therefore, thus
– Concluding ideas: Finally, in short, in summary, that is, that is to say, to sum up.