I was struck by a few of Janet Emig’s research findings in The Composing Processes of Twelfth Graders (1971).

One that was remarkable is a pilot study she did of how effective the practice of writing outlines is in improving the organization of an essay.  Reviewing the literature, she begins, one might conclude that writing an outline would lead to having a more organized draft.  To test whether there is a correlation between outline-making and organization, she examined 109 expository themes and all “written actions that preceded the final drafts” from 25 eleventh grade students.  She found that students had made some sort of plan before the final draft in 37% of the essays, and that students had made formal outlines for 8% of the themes.   When independent scorers were given a sample of twenty essays (9 of which had been accompanied by outlines and 11 that had not, with this information withheld) and asked to score them solely on the merits of their organization, the scorers did not find that making an outline first led to more organized writing.  Emig states, “covariant analysis revealed no correlation between the presence of absence of any outline and the grade a student receives evaluating how well organized the theme is” (27).  And this is just about organization.  I think here of the novel that Ralph Fletcher remembers trying to write from an outline that he planned in advance.  The language was flat and lifeless and he abandoned the project before publication.  I wonder if the essays were scored according to voice and/or style, if the outline might negatively affect the writing.  Or not.  Maybe each different writer requires his or her own process, which is the message that Emig forwards from this study.  It’s not that outlines are useless.  They are useful to  some students, so we should teach them as one tool in the toolbox.

Emig’s close study of the writing process of eight 12 graders (that’s her sample size) shows that they write more and revise more when they are writing to an audience of their peers than to their teacher.  They also write more when they are writing “reflexively,” thinking about their thinking, as in diaries and journals.  Emig thus concludes that writing teachers would be wise to try to get out of the way of students’ writing for the most significant audiences in their lives, and to assign more writing that is reflexive in nature–writing to discover, rather than merely writing to display knowledge for evaluation by a single teacher.