By Eva Dunsky
An outline template for you and yours. Patent pending.
The advice to outline before writing gets repeated for a reason: an outline can help organize your research, structure your thoughts, and allow you to notice connections between ideas that you might not have noticed otherwise. It can also help you land on a structure and flow for your paper that will make sense to an outside reader, which is a difficult thing to get the hang of. Finally, it can help you avoid some of the anxiety-inducing messiness of a long and unorganized first draft.
That said: outline only if it makes sense to you. Embrace the mess if it makes sense to you. Do some mixture of the two if that’s what floats your boat. Writing is hard enough, and so much of learning to write well is about trial and error—you have to keep revising and reflecting on your process until you figure out what serves you. Luckily you have four years and countless essay assignments to figure it out.
Okay, enough provisos. Assuming you do want to outline, where should you start? What should be included in the outline?
Alright, I lied, one more proviso: what makes sense to include will vary from writer to writer and assignment to assignment. Again, learning to write is an iterative process, meaning you have to continuously return to the page and make small tweaks until you feel you’ve achieved what you set out to do (or come up against your deadline: I see you, procrastinators).
That said, there are a few things I suggest including in each outline:
Necessary Context: As you begin your paper, you might want to consider what your reader needs to know upfront to understand your topic and/or research question. It might sound insultingly obvious, but the best way to structure a paper is to put yourself in the reader’s shoes: what context does the reader absolutely need to have right away? Be judicious here, as many novice writers end up with too much context and not enough analysis.
Research Question/Thesis: This can be thought about in two ways.If you’re writing a research paper, I suggest trying to articulate your research question using the schema provided by Booth, Colomb and Williams in their book The Craft of Research: I am studying __________ to figure out __________ to help my reader understand ___________. Fill in the blanks with your research topic, your research question, and the expected implications/findings of that research. If you’re writing a critical analysis, you can use this section to state the thesis (remember: it should be a debatable claim that a reasonable person could disagree with) that you’ll go on to argue.
Main idea: What is this section/paragraph meant to say? You can express this in your own words and/or by using citations. You can use the subpoints for further analysis.
Purpose of Paragraph: What is this section/paragraph meant to do? This can be tricky to articulate, but you should be able to discern a purpose for each paragraph. Practice by distilling the articles, papers, and journalism you read for class: what is each paragraph saying, and what is each paragraph doing? In other words, how are your paragraphs building on/expanding/complicating the paragraphs that preceded them, and how are they linked to the paragraphs that will follow?
Transition Sentences: I find this more useful as a concept than topic sentences. Rather than trying to sum up all the paragraph’s ideas in one sentence, consider how you can create a sense of continuity for your reader by looking at the last sentence of the preceding paragraph and the first sentence of the new paragraph. How are they related? Have you articulated that connection clearly to your reader? Consider using transition words that illustrate relationships between ideas such as for example, although, however, in addition, because, etc. (more transition words here).
Conclusion: Conclusions are tricky. We know not to simply repeat what we wrote in the introduction and body of the essay, but if we aren’t repeating ourselves, then what to include? I suggest a few different ways to leave your reader with something new to ponder at the end of your paper below.
Keep in mind that these aren’t the only things you can include in an outline—what you include will vary (are you sensing a theme yet?) according to the needs of your project.
Here’s the outline template in full:
I. INTRO A. Necessary Context B. Research Question/Thesis II. BODY 1 A. Potential transition sentence: To answer this question, we first have to consider __________ B. Main idea a. subpoints b. subpoints c. subpoints C. Purpose of Paragraph III. BODY 2 A. Transition Sentence that relates the ideas in this paragraph to the ideas you’ve mentioned previously B. Main idea a. subpoints b. subpoints c. subpoints C. Purpose of Paragraph IV. BODY 3 A. Transition Sentence that relates the ideas in this paragraph to the ideas you’ve mentioned previously B. Main idea a. subpoints b. subpoints c. subpoints C. Purpose of Paragraph V. BODY 4 A. Transition Sentence that relates the ideas in this paragraph to the ideas you’ve mentioned previously B. Main idea a. subpoints b. subpoints c. subpoints C. Purpose of Paragraph VI. Conclusion A. Transition Sentence that relates the ideas in this paragraph to the ideas you’ve mentioned previously B. What claims can you make based on your research? C. What are the implications of your research (why is it important?) D. Looking forward: what further questions might we continue asking about the topic? E. How has your understanding of the topic changed?