Writing an Outline
October 19, 2004 2:43 PM   Subscribe

When writing an outline, how deep should you go? [more inside]

I'm translating a document that uses a mishmash of dotted-decimal and letter outline forms, so it goes sort of like this:
Occasionally the author skips a rung in this hierarchy, so it's not a good model to follow in any case. I have made the decision to convert the whole thing to dotted-decimal, but when you get down six rungs deep, it's very hard to look at all those digits without going crosseyed.

So, I'm wondering. Are there any well-founded guidelines for how deep to go in an outline? For whatever it's worth, I'm going down 5 layers and just indenting the 6th layer, if present. If I get to a 7th layer later, my head will explode.
posted by adamrice to Writing & Language (7 answers total)

I'm a big outliner for notes and such. I would suggest using MS OneNote if you can get into it. I'm trying to force myself to like it (13 years of note taking by hand is hard to break). Of course I find that drilling down too deep is counter productive and destroys the usefulness of outlines. Once I start going on the lower case incarnations I try to see if I can start a new Roman numeral topic. I don't think there's any hard and fast rules. My general understanding (from years of teachers and such) is that outlines should be exactly that. Minimalistic endeavors to capture key points and record important dates. I'm able to pretty much reread a whole chapter of a book by going through my outlines, if it's not in there it is ancillary data that is of no real importance. A lot of times I ask "What would happen if I omitted this fact? Would my perspective and understanding be impacted if I were unaware of it?" and then don't write it down. It's been working pretty well. If you can cut down on whatever the hell that guy's doing, the more the merrier.
posted by geoff. at 3:01 PM on October 19, 2004

What are you doing with the outline? Is it for your consumption or someone else's (students)?
posted by ParisParamus at 3:17 PM on October 19, 2004

This is a technical document, requirements for an (unnamed) wireless communications system in the 5GHz band. I'm not at liberty to restructure it (and at any rate, they aren't paying enough for me to try), much less omit content, but pride and sanity demand that I at least use a consistent and recognizable outline form. Technical documents like this are, at least as often as not, structured as dotted-decimal outlines.

I know the classic outline format (yes, I took 7th grade). That's not my question. I'm more interested in knowing if there are any guidelines in terms of legibility/usability/etc, for numbering depth.
posted by adamrice at 4:03 PM on October 19, 2004

Law student here. We got this stuff down to a science.

I like dotted-decimal for publications, and letter-number for individual use. The first three levels are headings only. Any in-depth discussion starts at level 4, and rarely goes past level 6. YMMV, of course, since my method works for exam reference and you're operating under completely different circumstances.

Feel free to steal my Word template (self-link).
posted by PrinceValium at 4:12 PM on October 19, 2004

Stick with dotted decimal and you can go up to six levels comfortably. Beyond that I would use bullets or simple numbered lists if necessary. The mixed Roman numeral/letter/number format should be never be used IMO - I've never seen it used in the UK or for that matter anywhere apart from US grade schools.
posted by cbrody at 5:13 PM on October 19, 2004

LaTeX renders nested enumerate environments with mixed number/letter/roman numerals, though it could just be doing that because of my setup.
posted by kenko at 5:35 PM on October 19, 2004

For large technical documents, I use dotted decimal to four levels deep. After that, I use bullet points with a header in boldface, followed by a period, followed by the text continuing on the same line. For further levels, I indent but don't use any numbering.

Dotted headers more than 4 levels deep are great opportunities for confusion, and they break the flow of the document. Making sure that each bullet point has a header makes it easy to reference it in a discussion or an e-mail. The lower-level headers are a good writing discipline to make sure I know exactly what I'm trying to say in each paragraph.

On the other hand, if you're translating the document, and teams need to communicate using both the original and the translated document, then maybe you've got no choice but to preserve the original numbering so that everyone's talking about the same paragraph when they reference it by number. I'd say check first before making any decisions on your own.
posted by fuzz at 9:31 AM on October 20, 2004 [1 favorite]

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