How to use an outline to your advantage when you’re writing

academics English expository writing history

How often do you start writing an essay with a great idea in mind, only to lose steam—or worse, lose track of your argument—well before you meet the length requirement? Have you ever reread a paper draft only to realize what you’re arguing on the first page isn’t quite the same thing you’re arguing on the last one? These sorts of problems are common in writing, but the good news is that you can help avoid them by taking the time to outline your paper before you start.

What is an outline?

At its most basic, an outline is a way of organizing information. It starts with big ideas and works inward towards specifics. When you’re writing a paper, your outline might be organized paragraph by paragraph, argument by argument, or theme by theme.

How do I use an outline?

Start with your thesis statement at the top. Everything in your paper should be working toward proving your thesis. When you’re outlining, it’s easy to stop and check to make sure you’re not including extraneous information by just looking back up at the thesis and asking yourself, “Does this argument / piece of evidence / anecdote work to prove my larger point?” And if it doesn’t, you can simply delete it!

Once you know what you want to argue, you can begin organizing your thoughts. Start with the skeleton of the argument—the major points you need to articulate in order to prove your thesis. Make sure they flow logically from one to the next. Then you can start filling in the evidence underneath those larger points, again making sure that your logic flows well from one piece of evidence to the next one. 

As you go along, ask yourself: what am I trying to accomplish with this section of the paper? What evidence can I deploy to make sure it does its job? When you’ve answered those questions, fill in your outline accordingly. 

Why is an outline helpful?

Outlines are especially good for visualizing the flow of your argument. As you work, you will move from big ideas (the thesis, the main arguments that prove your thesis) to smaller ideas (individual pieces of supporting evidence). You can easily see the connections between different parts of your paper. Outlines help you make sure you’re always writing in the service of your thesis.

Another benefit is that they allow you to write different parts of your paper at different times. Maybe you’ve done the research for your third paragraph but haven’t fully fleshed out what you want to say in your second paragraph. That’s okay! You can easily work on the paper out of order. Authors almost never write their books from front to back—they might write chapter five, then chapter two, then the introduction, and so on. Having an outline helps them keep track of the job each chapter is doing, so they can jump from one to another.

Outlines can also save you time. You may come to the realization one section of your paper isn’t actually that convincing or that helpful—with an outline, you can see the potential problems with your work before you actually go through the process of writing everything out. With an outline, you can also much more easily tell if you’re going to be under the word limit—or over it! Outlines help you plan to meet the requirements of your assignment, so you aren’t trying to add words at the last minute or hastily delete whole paragraphs.

Kellen holds a BA from Princeton in History & African American Studies, and a PhD from Columbia in History. She was a Predoctoral Fellow at UPenn’s McNeil Center for Early American Studies, and is now working on her Postdoctoral Fellowship at Penn State University.

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