Writing an Outline

how-to-write-a-research-paper-featuredIn my 1000-2000 level courses I typically provide  prompts for writing assignments, which can be thought of as the “raw material” for outlining their assigned topic. In such lower-division 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. These students should each start working on their outlines after writing a provisional draft of their introduction and developing some working notes.

The purpose of an outline is to project the trajectory of your paper beyond that sketched out in your introduction. 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 the thesis or claim you’re making about your topic. Think of all the questions this claim must answer. Add these questions to your working notes.
  • Note that some of these questions cannot be answered until others have been answered. This should begin to suggest an order for an outline. Arrange the questions in a logical order.
  • Jot down provisional answers to these questions in the form of phrases or short sentences, and 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 outline.
  • Now use copy-and-paste or drag-and-drop to arrange the different ideas from your working notes under these provisional answers, which will be used to support these answers.
  • This process will suggest other questions that will require further provisional answers, which will add more levels of refinement to your outline. Add these answers and their supporting ideas where appropriate. Repeat as often as necessary.
  • 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 (again, see this 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. Now it’s time to start writing the rest of your paper.

© D. R. Koukal