Strategies of Convergent Thinking

Whereas divergent thinking involved tearing a topic apart to explore its various component parts, convergent thinking involves combining or joining different ideas together based on elements these ideas have in common. In short, convergent thinking means putting the different pieces of a topic back together in some organized, structured and understandable fashion. Convergent thinking, then, is an essential part of the outlining and organizing process.

Principles of Outlining

1. Strive for 2 - 7 main sections or categories of information.

Research on the way the brain processes information clearly demonstrates that people are able to efficiently absorb and retain up to seven main ideas, but no more. In term of communication, this suggests that a writer create an outline which follows a clear-cut pattern comprised of two to seven main sections or categories. In practice, creating an outline with 3 - 5 main categories or sections is ideal. This will help readers to more easily comprehend and remember the information.

For example, suppose a writer's purpose is to provide information about gun safety. The writer has 10 important tips or pieces of advice about how to be safe around guns. Should each piece of advice represent a main point in the paper? NO. Ten separate points about gun safety is probably too many for the reader to retain easily. Thus, the writer would be wise to group together different tips on gun safety that to fit together in some logical fashion, thus forming three or four larger categories of information. For instance, those three categories might be:

I. Handling (information about handling guns)

II. Storing (information about storing guns)

III. Loading (information about loading ammunition in guns)

In this way, the writer could shorten a list of 10 different items into three easy-to-remember categories. This will help the reader digest the information when reading the document, and remember the information later. In short, limiting the number of categories to seven (3 - 5 ideally) will provide structure that aids the reader.

2. Make the sections or categories mutually exclusive.

A clearly organized, well constructed document will deal with one topic at a time such that the reader can follow along easily. This requires an outline which groups specific ideas within larger categories that do not overlap with one another. In other words, the main sections of an outline should be distinct from one another such that the reader is not confused about how one section is different from another.

For example, suppose a writer's purpose is to describe the characteristics of effective leaders. Let's say the writer has identified six key characteristics: (1) Intelligence; (2) Communication; (3) Motivation; (4) Problem-solving ability; (5) Energy and enthusiasm; and (6) People skills. Notice that these six categories seem to overlap because some of the categories are so closely related. For example, intelligence and problem-solving are closely related; communication and people skills are closely related; and motivation is closely related to energy and enthusiasm. To clarify and distinguish the main categories, the writer would be wise to combine the ones which go together, thus creating three distinct and mutually exclusive categories rather than six related ones. 3. Strive for balance between the main sections.

As a general rule of thumb, an outline's main sections should be approximately equal in terms of the amount of information they contain. The principle of balance suggests that a document is weighted such that no one part is given substantially more space and importance than the others. Should one main section of an outline contain substantially more information than the others, it may be wise to focus on that one category, and divide it up into separate sections.

For example, suppose a writer's purpose is to discuss the causes of marital conflict and strategies for managing this conflict. The writer's outline looks like:

I. Causes of Marital Conflict

  1. Financial problems
  2. Religious backgrounds
  3. Work schedules
  4. Families
  5. Child raising differences
  6. Personality differences
  7. Different interests/hobbies
  8. Boredom

II. Strategies for Managing Conflict

  1. Communicate effectively
  2. Support each other

Notice that this outline is unbalanced, because the first section contains eight parts, and the second sections contains only two parts. It may be wise in this case for the writer to focus only on the causes of marital conflict, and sub-divide these eight causes into several sub-categories. In this case, the eight causes of conflict would be grouped into three or four different categories representing different types of causes of marital conflict.

4. Label each main section (add headings to the outline).

Once an outline as been created, it is often helpful to label the main parts of the outline. These labels will later become headings which are inserted into the final document, thus helping the reader see how the document is designed and organized.

For example, consider the following outline on tourist attractions in Seattle. In this outline, each of the three main sections will become "primary" headings in the paper, such as "Exploring Seattle's Downtown Waterfront" and "Exploring the Seattle Center" and "Exploring Seattle's University District." These main headings help divide the paper into clear and distinct sections. Within these main sections, the writer may wish to include secondary headings under each primary heading. In the first main section of the outline below, the secondary headings would be "Aquarium" and "Pike Place Market."

I. Downtown Waterfront
  1. Aquarium
  2. Pike Place Market

II. Seattle Center

  1. Space Needle
  2. Pacific Science Center

III. University District

  1. University of Washington campus
  2. The "Ave" (shops on University Avenue)

Steps in Creating an Outline

  1. Practice divergent thinking. See "Strategies of Divergent Thinking."
  2. Select a pattern of organization. See "Patterns of Organization."
  3. Group ideas into clusters or sections following the chosen pattern. See "Principles of Organizing."
  4. Label each main section.