The middle school writers’ workshop: 3 steps to a great literary essay outline

academics English expository writing
By Tess H.

Statistical Mediation & Moderation in Psychological Research (50)Writing literary essays can be scary. Learning how to analyze texts through writing is one of the most challenging but fundamental skills that you’ll need in your academic career. Particularly for younger students, this task can be daunting. However, if you follow a few simple steps, it doesn’t have to be!

The trick is all in the planning. One of the most common mistakes I see students make is beginning to write an essay without first coming up with a plan for what they want to say and how they want to say it. You wouldn’t start a road trip without first looking up directions, right? It’s the same with writing. The best writers map out exactly what they want to say before they ever put pen to paper. We call this process outlining.

Step 1: Write your Thesis or the “Find the Destination”

The first step of outlining is deciding what you want to prove in your essay. Literary essays are quite different from book reports. Rather than just explaining to your audience what happened in the book or what you thought of it, you are trying to prove a point. Do you know what writers call this point? If you guessed “a thesis,” you are spot on! A thesis is a concise, one-sentence statement that explains to the reader what you are trying to prove in your essay. However, theses cannot be 1) a fact or 2) a subjective opinion. For example, you couldn’t state a fact like “grass is green” because that statement isn’t debatable. It’s just true! Similarly, “Chocolate is my favorite flavor of ice cream” isn’t a good thesis either because that’s just an opinion. You might think chocolate is the best while I might prefer vanilla, but we will never be able to convince each other to change our mind. Good theses are specific, provable, and arguable. Check out the examples below:

“In the book Esperanza Rising, Esperanza’s character development teaches the reader the importance of perseverance.”

“Author Thanhha Lai uses descriptive language in Inside Out and Back Again to contrast Há’s feelings of belonging in Vietnam with the isolation and loneliness she experiences as a refugee in America.”

“In Sandra Cisneros’ story story

As you can see, a good thesis for a literary essay explains how an author uses a literary technique, such as symbolism, metaphors, or character development, to develop a larger idea or a theme. Once you are happy with your thesis, you are ready to move onto step two!

Step 2: Brainstorm Paragraphs or “Find the directions”

Now that you know what you want to prove, you still have to prove it! Take some time to think about what conclusions your reader will need to reach before eventually agreeing with your thesis. Do this by asking yourself questions about the text. For example, if you are trying to explain character development over the course of a novel, think about what a specific character is like at the beginning, middle, and end of a novel. How does their personality change? What events cause this change in them? Do other characters influence this change? How do we see these changes reflected in their actions? How does this change (or changes) reflect the book’s theme? Take notes as you reflect on the text and soon you will see connections between ideas. Group related ideas together into bullet points. These groups of ideas that support your thesis will eventually become paragraphs. I like to think of paragraphs as the directions: they will guide your audience’s thinking so that they eventually arrive at the same conclusion as you.

Warning to the wise: make sure all your paragraphs help support your thesis! While you might come up with some cool, unrelated ideas, they will just distract or even confuse the reader. The best way to prevent this is by writing a topic sentence for each paragraph. A topic sentence is a sentence at the beginning of each paragraph that summarizes what you will be arguing in that paragraph. By writing your topic sentences first, you will make sure all your ideas for each paragraph are focused, tight, on topic. Check out the example below to see what I mean:

Thesis: In the book Esperanza Rising, Esperanza’s character development teaches the reader the importance of perseverance.”

Paragraph 1:

Topic Sentence: Esperanza’s upbringing as the daughter of a wealthy landowner protects her from experiencing any of life’s hardships and makes her reliant on others.

Her comfortable life at Rancho de las Rosas

Her prejudices against poor people

Her limited understanding of the world

Paragraph 2:

Topic Sentence: Unexpected challenges in Esperanza’s life force her to step out of her comfort zone and develop new skills, friendships, and perspectives.

Her father’s death

Her move to California

Her mother’s sickness

Her family’s economic hardship

Paragraph 4:

Topic Sentence: Esperanza steps up to the challenge and supports her family, thereby becoming independent and learning that she can rely on herself.

Her friendships with Marta, Miguel, and Isabel

Her work in the fields

Her brave actions to stand up for the rights of her family and other migrant workers

Step 3: Mine for quotes that support your thesis or “Gas Up!”

The third step is to find direct quotes from the book that support your ideas. Of course, I know that you are trustworthy, but why should the reader? Direct quotes from the text act as evidence to back up your opinions. Even more importantly, using quotes correctly can turn an essay from good to great and give it the fuel it needs to make an impactful argument.

I always tell students to begin by leafing back through the text. Look for parts of the book that you have highlighted or starred. Are they related to any of your topic sentences? Use different colored sticky notes, one color for each paragraph, and mark where the quotes are in the text. Then go through and add the quotations as bullet points in your outline. By finding the quotations you want to include in your essay beforehand, you will be able to have everything you need when it’s time to write! See what I mean below in these example for paragraph four:

Paragraph 4:

Topic Sentence: Esperanza steps up to the challenge and supports her family, thereby becoming independent and learning that she can rely on herself.

“She stirred the beans and watched Lupe and

Step 4: Start writing or “Hit the road!”

After all that work you are finally ready to get started! You know where your essay is going, how to get there, and what text evidence you’ll need to make it there. You have a strong thesis to guide you and topic sentences to keep you on track. Now that you’ve done the legwork, I think you’ll be surprised at how easy it is to write a stellar essay. Go ahead, get going!