This section on planning combines the “bones” of your thesis or question with the “flesh” from your research and insights to construct a unified essay body.

An outline is the organizational plan for your paper. You know your starting point: your introduction and thesis/research question. You know your destination: some sort of summative and thoughtful conclusion. But how are you going to get from one to the other? What’s your vehicle? See, an outline doesn’t just help you articulate what you plan to say, but also how you’re going to move from supporting paragraph to supporting paragraph, how you’re going to get where you want to go.

The importance of outlines:

  • if you can’t articulate your paper even in point form, you won’t be able to do it effectively in prose and it will take you much longer to write an inferior draft
  • if you do find structural problems or gaps as you outline, it’s easier to fix them now than to try and totally revamp a 3rd draft. Face it, it’s always easier (translation: less intellectually painful) to scrap a note than a paragraph or whole essay
  • any teacher will tell you that you will lose more points for lack of substance than for lack of writing style; outlines are all about the crux and direction of substance
  • should things click into place, an outline gives you confidence. It helps you to realize that, yes, you really do know what you’re talking about!
  • stream-of-consciousness writing can be published and fascinating as creative writing, but not as a research paper. Markers don’t appreciate mental diarrhea or what Kevin B. Bucknall from Griffith University calls The Shotgun Technique: “This is putting down everything you know about the subject, and is a common fault. It is like firing a shotgun and hoping that some of the many pellets hit home.” So have some respect for your readers
  • outlines make drafting less stressful not only by describing the relationship of your ideas to each other and to the thesis or question, but because you now have small manageable chunks to tackle
  • many professors will be delighted to make an appointment with you to go over an outline but not a draft

How to construct your own

The first step to constructing an outline is to take a deep breath. You’re probably intimidated by the research materials and notes amassed in front of you –not to worry.

Carefully read the notes you took from the last step. Try to find classifications for your findings that relate to your thesis or research question. Look for common trends. They’re going to be separated from each other but gather them together. It doesn’t really matter how you classify. For a 5,000 word paper, you may find two huge headings. Great, now see what could fall under each. And don’t forget to look back at the original assignment for clues about sub-groups your professor might be looking for.

You can classify using a variety of techniques. If you like putting notes on index cards, then paper-clip ones that go together and shuffle them around to achieve the best order of ideas. You can also do this on paper: use different-coloured symbols or highlighters or cut your sheets into strips (if you wrote on only one side of the page). On the computer, use some of the techniques suggested by our OWL handout on Writing With Computers.

With several piles of related concepts before you, think of other ways of grouping that might make equal sense.

Once you’re happy with what you’ve got, you may find that some sections are strong and fleshed-out whereas others are weaker. Do some more research where needed or see if two “weak” sections just couldn’t fit under one stronger heading. Perhaps as hard as you try, your points fit together but not with the overarching argument you’re making. In that case, don’t be afraid to re-evaluate your thesis; it may just need a qualification. Your evidence may be great but if it supports a different thesis, your readers won’t see how great it is because they’ll be expecting something else.

Now that you have thesis and support (or research question and answers) fitting together, give yourself a pat on the back—ô.the really hard work is done!

What should an outline look like?

It doesn’t really matter. Unless you have to hand it in for marks or you really do like the process, don’t feel you have to get bogged down in the formal, “roman-numeral” structure. If webbing or point form does it for you, then that’s what you should use.

Check out this possible template for an argumentative paper and this one for an analytical paper. Remember that they are just possible structural ideas. Now that you’re an expert critical problem-solver, we’re sure you can modify them to suit the needs of your particular paper.