Writing an Outline

how-to-write-a-research-paper-featuredIn lower-division courses I typically provide  prompts for writing assignments, which can be thought of as the “raw material” for outlining their assigned topic. In such 1000-2000 level courses writing an outline may not be necessary. However, in my upper-division courses students pick their own topics, so learning how to write a good outline is essential.

An outline projects the trajectory of your paper beyond that sketched out in your draft introduction, where you chose your topic and created your working thesis or claim. The point of this exercise is to sketch out in outline what ideas you will use to support your claim. You might think of the lines an artist sketches out in pencil that provide the organizing structure of what they want to create in their art.

A good outline will do something similar, except instead of using lines you’re using ideas. A good outline will allow you to organize the main ideas of your paper, to organize its paragraphs into an order that makes sense, and to make sure that each idea can be fully developed. Most importantly, an outline helps you to visualize the whole of your paper and make it less intimidating to start writing, and it helps to prevent you from getting stuck once you’ve started writing.

Here’s how to start your provisional outline:

  • Recall your working thesis or claim from your draft introduction. Think of all the questions this claim must answer. Some of these questions cannot be answered until others have been answered. This should begin to suggest an order for an outline.
  • Once you have arranged these questions in a logical order, jot down provisional answers in the form of phrases or short sentences in the same order. Each of these phrases or sentences will constitute subordinate claims that will support your overall claim. These provisional answers will provide the main points for your outlines.
  • Each of these initial provisional answers will suggest other questions that will require further provisional answers, which will add a level of refinement to your outline.
  • As your outline evolves, you should notice that it begins with generalities in your introduction; that the analysis and argumentation in the body of your paper yields a greater level of specificity; and that your paper should conclude with generalities drawn from your analysis and arguments in the body of the paper.
  • This is known as a classical “hourglass” essay, where the narrowest part of the glass corresponds to the more detailed and specific body of your paper. This means that the body should be the largest part of your essay, like in this sample outline.
  • To reiterate: each point of your outline should be constituted not by multiple sentences or a paragraph, but by a single phrase or a short sentence, and should still be intelligible enough for your instructor to follow. (See sample.)

Needless to say, your outline could well evolve in length and complexity as your ideas start to gel after you start writing your paper. You should not be afraid to amend it, even after you have turned it in for a grade. Creating a provisional outline such as this will take a small amount of time, but it should result in saving time during the writing phase.

© D. R. Koukal