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Q&A

How to represent dependencies in outlines

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The bulk of my writing consists of technical papers, reports, notes, and memos. Because of the mathematical nature of my work I spend a lot of time writing definitions, and it is very important that I define terminology in the right order.

I generally write from an outline, but often my first draft of an outline has a lot of flaws of a particular type. The type of flaw is where the outline talks about some topic or terminology before it has been defined. In my first revision of the outline, I would like to try an indicate the dependencies of a particular item. How can I clearly denote some of these dependencies in my outline without making the outline cluttered?

For example,

  1. Describe problem.
  2. Define parameters and decision variables.
    • Cost function
    • Time function
    • Probability distributions ...

In this case, suppose that the time and cost functions both depend on the probability distribution, what is an effective way to indicate that, in a way integral to the outline?

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This post was sourced from https://writers.stackexchange.com/q/6435. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

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2 answers

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After you write your first draft, you will see from actual use what terms are dependent on other terms. That will allow you to reorder your definitions and put the ones you need first in front.

You're allowed to vary from your outline, and you're allowed to revise your outline. If you wrote a paper as you outlined it above and then realized that Cost and Time are dependent on Probability... then move Probability.

The outline is a guide to help you write, not the end document. Your final piece doesn't have to be mirrored in your outline. You can rewrite the outline to match the end report if you feel strongly about it.

If your question is "how do I physically represent this relationship?" you could make Cost and Time sub-bullets of Probability.

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As Lauren said, the outline is a tool for your use, not a deliverable in its own right, so if you deviate from it, that's ok.

You asked how to track these dependencies in an outline. A technique I have used is to diagram my outline, using arrows to point from an entry to each one that it depends on. (This helps identify circular dependencies, too.) This diagram can be with a pen (I recommend a whiteboard for easy modification), or in a diagramming tool such as Visio, or -- this is low-tech but it works in some settings (see below) -- sticky notes on a wall with string between them (knot one end of the string to stand in as an arrowhead). With any of these, you can update as you go along, so when you discover a new dependency you can add it in. If you need to move "nodes" around, that's easy with a diagramming tool or the sticky notes.

I usually use the whiteboard approach and sometimes the online diagram. The sticky-note approach is useful in meetings early in the development of a project, where lots of people need to have input and we don't really know where the dependencies are yet, but it's more cumbersome once the problem is better understood.

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