Write an Outline to Carry Your Essay (and Save You Time)

Many writers, even those with experience, struggle to begin or develop writing assignments. Staring at an empty page can be daunting and frustrating, and maintaining focus as you write can be difficult as well. Enter the outline: it's here to help you write, keep your composition on track to fulfill the assignment, and do it all more quickly than if you tried to write freestyle. In fact, with a good outline you're halfway done with your assignment, because all that's left to do is flesh out each concept into full sentences.

Write An Outline To Carry Your Essay (And Save You Time) | Happy Contributor Adria shares her best tips for producing an essay outline that will help you produce the best paper possible. Click through for essay outline tips that will blow you and your professors away.

1. Format the Document

If you're typing, go ahead and format your document. It's easier to format your document at the start than to wait until you're finished. That's true because, when you're done writing and editing, you're done--you don't want to spend time tidying up and formatting, and you're likely to miss one of the requirements. Format the blank document right away. When you format the document you can easily go down the checklist of requirements for the required style and you also have a bit of a boost to get you started because you've put some information on the page already (even if it's just your name, the course, or a paper title.) If your class does not require specifically formatted documents, I recommend you format them anyway, because it looks nice (your professor will appreciate it) and gives you more practice with formatting.

2. Create a Working Title

The purpose of the working title is to ground you and help you focus on your assignment--while at the same time pumping you up about your topic. Give it a name that appeals to you, like "The Scarlet 'Dear John' Letter" or a self-reflective title like "The Scarlet Letter Essay That Will Earn an A." This title is all for you and to help you get started; you can change it later to a more serious title (...or not) or something that reflects the paper's topic. At the least, give in to your anger and title it something like "The Civil War Was Bad," or "Why I Hate The Scarlet Letter" and it will force you to think critically every time you work on it (why do you hate The Scarlet Letter?).

3. Create a Thesis

A lot of students struggle with creating a thesis. However uninspired you feel, don't skip this step, or you'll be working without direction, which could mean you're wasting time. A thesis is a statement of purpose. It tells readers what to expect from your paper. In addition to stating a purpose, the thesis may explain why that matters. If you need help, start with something basic:

"The Scarlet Letter is depressing." Substitute a more sophisticated word to make it "The Scarlet Letter is tragic." Ask yourself why you feel that way--is it related to the plot? Or maybe you just got a "feeling" while reading. Can you put your finger on it? Is it the imagery used, perhaps? Whatever the reason, it's the conclusion of your thesis. Your thesis now reads like, "The Scarlet Letter is tragic because of dark imagery." That will work, but rephrasing it and getting creative with your word choice will make it stronger: "Dark imagery in The Scarlet Letter achieves the novel's tragic nature." 

For another class, like history, you might write about something like the Civil War and have a starting thesis that, "The Civil War was bad." You might feel silly writing something so obvious--but use the statement to consider why and you'll get a better thesis: "The Civil War was bad because it turned brother against brother," perhaps refined to "The greatest evil of the Civil War was that it turned brother against brother."

4. Write Your Thoughts and Reflections 

Here is where you create a word, phrases and ideas dump. Write (or type) everything you can think of about the topic, especially in relation to your thesis. If you hit a roadblock and need help writing concepts, just imagine you're telling your friends about the assignment--how would you describe it to them?

I've read it twice, there are Puritans in it, their attire is stifling/stuffy, they're religious/pious, it's set in young America, small town, everyone knows everyone but they don't know Hester or who her baby daddy is, there's a meteor, it's seen as a sign, the people are superstitious/ignorant, light over dark world/society, they're afraid of the forest, devil, sin, forbidden, restrictions, punishment, self-flagellation, shame & public humiliation, patriarchal society's desire to control, Chillingworth has no life besides tormenting Hester and Dimmesdale, Hester's disobedience and obedience...

The Civil War assignment word dump might look like this:

North vs. South, brother fighting brother, fratricide, a nation divided, a nation sort-of-divided because the South was actually a Confederacy and not unified, the north was controlling, industrialization vs. agriculture, "southern way of life," slavery and plantations, man enslaving fellow man, emancipation, Abraham Lincoln, assassination, propaganda, weapons, progress, struggle, populations, loss of life, loss of humanity...

I usually do the word dump as a bullet list so I can arrange it more easily for the next part.

5. Look for Trends or Associations

It seems pretty easy to make associations from these lists because there are plenty of dichotomies. Dichotomies are the easiest way to find trends--male/female, good/bad, north/south, war/peace, light/dark, alive/dead, etc. A trend could be about colors or numbers, or any shared trait.

In the first I find themes of evil, superstition, knowledge, control, shame...

In the second I find themes of brotherhood, loss and gain, control, violence...

6. Group and Arrange Accordingly

Here's where the outline form emerges. Make your thesis your first point. Then take your trends or themes and make each a point. Make your last point the thesis as well, because it will be a summary in which you again assert your claim and conclude how you supported it. You'll reword the opening thesis later so it doesn't read dully as copy & paste.

  1. Thesis: The greatest evil of the Civil War was that it turned brother against brother
  2. Brotherhood
  3. Loss and Gain
  4. Control
  5. Violence
  6. Thesis: The greatest evil of the Civil War was that it turned brother against brother

Next, begin to group the other ideas after each point. If you find a concept that could fit in more than one spot, either break it into two more specific ideas or consider it valuable as a link to help you transition from one supporting idea to the next.

  1. Thesis: The greatest evil of the Civil War was that it turned brother against brother
  2. Brotherhood
    1. North vs. South
    2. man enslaving fellow man
  3. Loss and Gain
    1. Loss
      1. a nation divided
      2. a nation sort-of-divided because the South was actually a Confederacy and not unified
      3. Abraham Lincoln
      4. "southern way of life"
      5. loss of life
      6. loss of humanity
    2. Gain
      1. emancipation
      2. progress
  4. Control
    1. the north was controlling
    2. emancipation (loss of control of slave owners)
    3. propaganda
  5. Violence
    1. assassination
    2. brother fighting brother
    3. fratricide
    4. weapons
  6. Thesis: The greatest evil of the Civil War was that it turned brother against brother

I had a few left over that I discarded. Additionally, some that I grouped together might be redundant--that asks you either to pick the stronger of the two or clarify each. For instance, "brother fighting brother" is similar to "fratricide," meaning to kill one's brother. Because they're grouped under "violence," fratricide is the stronger of the two--however, emphasizing the process of fighting or struggling might be more useful in your paper than the finality of killing.

The section for "Loss and Gain" had so many under it that I made two subsections. I fit "emancipation" under both "Loss and Gain" and "Control," adding clarification of how it fit with control. 

7. Create a Mini-Thesis for Each Grouping

Because each paragraph acts as its own point, it's sort of a micro-essay that makes a claim and is supported by evidence from your source. Consider the information grouped behind your main points--how do they support, or what argument do you see them making? Point 3's subsections have theses, too, but these are obviously the two halves of 3's thesis.

  1. Thesis: The greatest evil of the Civil War was that it turned brother against brother
  2. Brotherhood was tested, but it had already been strained by slavery
    1. North vs. South
    2. man enslaving fellow man
  3. Losses were sustained, such as loss of brotherhood and humanity, life--including, ultimately, our president--and a way of life, but the gains of emancipation and progress restored humanity.
    1. Losses were sustained, such as loss of brotherhood and humanity, life--including, ultimately, our president--and a way of life.
      1. a nation divided
      2. a nation sort-of-divided because the South was actually a Confederacy and not unified
      3. Abraham Lincoln
      4. "southern way of life"
      5. loss of life
      6. loss of humanity
    2. The gains of emancipation and progress restored humanity
      1. emancipation
      2. progress
  4. The war was fought because of and for control.
    1. the north was controlling
    2. emancipation (loss of control of slave owners)
    3. propaganda
  5. The war caused our nation to resort to terrible violence.
    1. assassination
    2. brother fighting brother
    3. fratricide
    4. weapons
  6. Thesis: The greatest evil of the Civil War was that it turned brother against brother

These might not be the best theses--but it's a great start, something to build on and work from, at the least!

8. Finalize Your Thesis Based on Supporting Information & Rework the Outline

Now that you have your supporting ideas, you get a better sense of what you're trying to argue. Time to rework your thesis: The greatest evil of the Civil War was that it turned brother against brother..." Ask yourself how or why and look at your points.

The greatest evil of the Civil War was that it turned brother against brother, sustaining severe losses and resulting in terrible violence in the fight for control and progress.

You'll noticed the supporting points occur out of order, the second main point doesn't feature in this statement and point 3's two subsections were split up. I would now rework the outline to follow this new flow... and the second main point that wasn't used can be featured in either the introduction or conclusion to support the paper as a whole, or reworked to support another point--whatever seems best to you as you work on the paper.

  1. Thesis: The greatest evil of the Civil War was that it turned brother against brother, sustaining severe losses and resulting in terrible violence in the fight for control and progress.
  2. Losses were sustained, such as loss of brotherhood and humanity, life--including, ultimately, our president--and a way of life.
    1. a nation divided
    2. a nation sort-of-divided because the South was actually a Confederacy and not unified
    3. Abraham Lincoln
    4. "southern way of life"
    5. loss of life
    6. loss of humanity
  3. The war caused our nation to resort to terrible violence.
    1. assassination
    2. brother fighting brother
    3. fratricide
    4. weapons
  4. The war was fought because of and for control.
    1. the north was controlling
    2. emancipation (loss of control of slave owners)
    3. propaganda
  5. The gains of emancipation and progress restored humanity
    1. emancipation
    2. progress
  6. Thesis: The greatest evil of the Civil War was that it turned brother against brother
    1. Brotherhood was tested, but it had already been strained by slavery
      1. North vs. South
      2. man enslaving fellow man

9. Plug in

You can use the outline to refer to when you write your paper, but a better way is to begin writing and connecting sentences on top of the outline framework. Start removing the framework and plug in each of your thoughts in full sentences, flowing from each subpoint to subpoint. Supporting points generally make a paragraph, or perhaps more if you have a longer assignment or a large subpoint. Make sure you transition well between each point.

Keep writing even if you have difficulty--the framework is there for you, so just work with what you provided yourself. Don't be afraid to graft in information you didn't include in your outline--your paper grows organically based on the frame you create for it.

10. Finish

After writing, edit as needed. Make your sentences stronger or give paragraphs better flow.  Finalize your title, give your assignment a good introduction and write a strong conclusion that will leave readers with no doubt of your assignment's intention. Remember: work on assignments in advance of their due dates and you will have more time to edit and problem solve, or have someone else help you edit your assignment to make the final version the best it can be.

Click the bio to check out more from Adria!

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