As you may know, a draft is an individual iteration of an essay or other piece of writing. One thing that experienced writers assume about their writing process is that multiple drafts are a fact of life, at least if they want to get anywhere close to meeting their potential.
Thus, writers tend to view an outline as the beginning of a longer and more productive process, as well as a transition into the drafting stage.
However, it's important not to think of your outline as set in stone. It's not a contract, but more like a mental guide. As with everything else in the writing process, you're in charge of the outline. If you ever feel the need to add, to cut, or to rearrange something in your outline, do it.
Remember that your outline, as well as later drafts of the essay itself, should always be driven by the working thesis, which itself can be changed throughout the writing process.
Now that we're a little more clear about what an outline is, let's look at how using one can help you proceed through the writing process, through drafting and revision.
Suppose you are working on an essay about fake plants. For the purpose of this hypothetical essay, let's say your argument is going to be that fake plants are worse than no plants, because all they do is remind people that the living room, the store, or the restaurant that they're in doesn't have any plants in it. A bare bones outline of this essay might look something like this:
- Fake plants worse than no plants
- Remind us what's missing (diner example with dust)
- Token gestures that discourage real effort (indoor plants at restaurant)
- Types of situations with fake plants
- Stores, restaurants, public buildings, living rooms?
- Include fake tree cell towers, or no?
- Conclusion: Make real gestures in life, not simulacra
- Appeal to notice fake plants, to not use them, or to at least use them knowing what's really going on
What do you notice? Besides the fact that it's necessarily brief and doesn't use complete sentences, it looks like a fairly thorough set of notes, right? It's a map for where you want to go with the essay, including the three main points you want to make. It begins with the thesis about how fake plants are worse than no plants, followed by some examples to make the topic real for your readers.
Next is an exploration into the most common situations in which people encounter fake plants, and all the associations therein. There is also a note in this section, asking whether or not to include a discussion about fake tree cellphone towers.
Finally, the last planned section includes a call to action for people to live a life of real gestures— to have plants or to not have plants, but to do either consciously.
The chances are very good that as you actually begin to write your first draft, you'll find that, for instance, you need to do much more work in the first section in order to convince your intended audience that fake plants are really that bad, and that they're worth writing and reading about. Therefore, one thing you might end up doing is borrowing some of the material you'd intended to use at the end in order to front-load your argument about why this matters— the whole part about living a life of real gestures, and how that is implicitly a much bigger argument that stretches far beyond the realm of plastic indoor plants.
This is absolutely fine. Just because you write an outline one way doesn't mean it is set in stone. After all, part of the reason you take a map on a journey is so you'll have multiple options when it comes to reaching your destination!
Plagiarism is a subject that you're likely familiar with, at least vaguely. In an academic context, plagiarism involves presenting someone else's ideas or writing as your own, whether intentionally or unintentionally.
Regardless of the intention, this behavior is considered unethical, and sometimes even illegal. Intentional, or deliberate, plagiarism generally incurs some punitive reaction from a teacher or educational institution. Unintentional plagiarism comes about when a careless writer fails to give credit to whoever first came up with the idea or work that's been taken.
It's important to address plagiarism in this discussion because having an original outline and original working thesis will help prevent both types of plagiarism.
If students, or any writers for that matter, have an outline and a working thesis, they will have already clearly expressed and organized their ideas in their own words, and will therefore be less likely to unintentionally take another's ideas or words as their own.
Also, if writers have done their due diligence in the prewriting stage, there will generally be less incentive to take another's ideas or words intentionally. After all, they'll have already done half the work, right?