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Writer’s Lab: Constructing effective outlines using assertive language

Today, I have the pleasure of hosting Nicole K.S. Barker in the writers’ lab. Nicole is a Ph.D. student at Laval University in Québec, Canada, working with Ducks Unlimited Canada and the Boreal Avian Modelling Project. While technically a Forestry student, she classifies her research as “applied ecological modelling”. 

Within her Ph.D. she is investigating various methods for quantifying patterns in waterfowl populations over space in time. 
Alongside her research, she continually searches for ways to improve her writing, productivity, and R programming skills, and has found social media to be instrumental in this regard. You can read more about Nicole on her blog or Twitter

Most writers start with an outline. And if they don’t, they should.

Outlines help you think through your topic. They help you identify the thread of your story – the message you’ll carry through from start to finish. Nothing is more frustrating than writing a full introduction to your paper only to discover that it doesn’t mesh well with your results or discussion once you get to those sections. As you fill in the finer details of your outline, you can revise the order of sentences (or even paragraphs) more fluidly than if you were writing in paragraph format.

I’ve been using outlines to guide my writing since the beginning of my academic studies, and I’ve used basically the same format the whole time. However, I recently revised my outline format following a tip from one of my writing group members. I’ve already found it useful, so I wanted to share it.

Étienne suggests that instead of using an outline to simply describe the content of each paragraph, we should use assertive statements. That is, summarize the main message or conclusion of each paragraph in one sentence or phrase. In this way, the story of the paper is apparent within the outline before we’ve even started writing the full content.

These outlines are harder to write, because they require you to really think through what you are trying to say. (You might find that this style works best for a second outline once you’ve got the very rough ideas down.) However, the assertive outline makes it easier to identify problems with flow between paragraphs, or areas where your story becomes inconsistent. Because the ideas are still in outline format, it’s easy to rearrange or adjust as necessary.

Give it a try and let Eva or me know how it went for you.

As an example, the introduction and discussion from a hypothetical paper about visualizing music with paint as a means to understand hearing impairment.



  • Broad opening statement – hearing impairment
  • Previous research 1 – cochlear implants
  • Previous research 2 – visualizing sound
  • Our study and objectives – effect of music on paint


  • Summary of results
  • Relation to previous research – other attempts to visualize sound
  • Relation to previous research – other attempts to understand cochlear implants
  • Conclusions and implications for hearing impairment



  • XXX number of people experiencing hearing impairment in one form or another
  • Cochlear implants have substantially improved hearing in XXX people since 19XX
  • In an effort to understand effects of cochlear implants, researchers have attempted to visualize sound using a variety of methods.
  • We applied a novel technique to visually represent sound using paint and multiple styles of music.


  • We found that different musical styles showed distinct patterns in the corresponding paint splatters.
  • Our research corroborates previous results that visual representations of sound display meaningful differences.
  • The differences between paint splatters from Mozart and those from Metallica help explain why those with cochlear implants prefer music with a strong beat.
  • Our results provide a novel means to make sound relatable for those with hearing impairments.

Share with your peers!
This Post Has 6 Comments
  1. Hi Eva, Nicole,Great idea about the assertive statements.When talking about outlines, most people focus entirely on the structure, but when it comes to the *content*, end up using useless descriptive language (\”Summary of results\”, etc.).I've had long struggles with writing my PhD in physics (at McGill U, also in Québec, Canada!) and decided to build a new kind of word processor that is both outline *and* content.Gingko AppGingko For Academic WritingLet me know what you think 🙂

  2. Gingko reminds me of Scrivener, and how I use Evernote. I'm constantly looking for an efficient way to type notes on papers in a way that facilitates writing later on. I might just sign up for the beta!

  3. Merci Nicole :)Yes it is somewhat similar to Scrivener (structured docs) & Evernote (chunks of content).Ideally, it should allow you to turn your notes directly into a publication.PS: Let me know if you have any questions/comments from beta! (you can msg me through help icon)

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