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A cluster outline I mocked up when answering a question on Metafilter about how to make your writing process faster. I learned this method in Academic Decathlon my senior year of high school. For those who don't know, AcaDec is an academic competition. Each school participating enters two A students, two B students, and two C students. The students take the tests, and whichever of the two in each grade division scores higher overall, those are the scores they use for your team.* You go to several competitions throughout the day - literature, mathematics, economics, etc. Including a competition on essay-writing. The AcaDec organization sets areas to study during the eyar and pulls the tests from them - we studied Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights in Literature (the previous year read Heart of Darkness), had a focus on flight as an overarching theme, and I don't remember much else.

Anyway, for the essay you get 50 minutes to write an essay on a prompt such as "Far from the Madding Crowd is stuctured around Bathsheba's relations with three men. By analyzing her relationships with all three men, identify the ways in which her character changes throughout the novel." (a prompt for the 2002-2003 year.) There are no official word counts given in the test rubric for scoring, as long as you answer the question thoroughly, but the teachers who served as our coaches told us MINIMUM 500 words.

The reason that I know the cluster outlining works well is that leading up to our first essay-test practice, I consistently misheard 50 minutes as 15 minutes, and was scared stiff at how short a time I had to whack out 500+ words on a given topic. So ... we start the test. I leap to it, outlining like mad for the first few minutes, then set to writing madly, one eye on the clock the whole while. I finished up right about 14:30, and sat back, exhausted, proud that I'd made it under deadline.

The clock ticked on. Nobody else looked up. The coaches sat at their desks, keeping half an eye on us, doing work for their other classes. I looked around. My teammates were still scribbling. It slowly dawned on me that I'd misheard the time for the past few weeks in class and that I'd been panicking for no reason.

But from then on, I learned exactly how fast I could write under deadline pressure. And the cluster outline has saved my skin on more than a few occasions when writing essays in exams.

* I never scored higher than my fellow B counterpart, so I stopped stressing over it, because his scores would always win. Until that fateful day at State when he screwed up somehow and they took mine. Oops!

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