how to write an essay
 

Step 5: Outline

Use an outline to plan

Can you imagine a construction manager working on a skyscraper without a set of blueprints? No way! Similarly, writers construct essays using sets of blueprints or outlines to guide them in the writing process. Of course writers don't have to use outlines, but the effect is about the same as a construction worker who "freebuilds."

Drawing up an outline allows you to think before you write. What use is there in writing the entire paper only to realize that, had you done a little more planning beforehand, you would have organized your essay in an entirely different way? What if you realize later, after free-writing the essay, that you should have omitted some paragraphs, restructured the progression of your logic, and used more examples and other evidence?

You can go back and try to insert major revisions into the essay, but the effect may be like trying to add a thicker foundation to a building already constructed. The outline allows you to think beforehand what you're going to write so that when you do write it, if you've done your planning right, you won't have to do as much rewriting. (You will still, of course, need to revise.)

Make your points brief

When you construct your outline, keep it brief. The titles, headings, and points in your outline should be about one line each. Remember that you are only drawing an outline of the forest, not detailing each of the trees. Keep each line under a dozen words. If you can't compress your point into a one-liner, you probably don't have a clear grasp of what you're trying to say.

When you describe the point of each paragraph, phrase the point in a mini-claim. If the point of a paragraph is that soft drugs should be legal because they are relatively harmless, don't just write "soft drugs" as the point of the paragraph in your outline -- it's too brief and vague. Instead, write "drugs should be legal b/c soft drugs are harmlessl." This description is still brief, as it should be (one line or less), but it makes a claim that gives it purpose in the outline.

Choose an appropriate arrangement

Drawing up an outline allows you to see at a glance how each of the paragraphs fits into the larger picture. When looking at your paragraphs from this perspective, you can easily shift around the order to see how a reorganization might be better. Remember that each paragraph in the essay should support the position or argument of your paper.

As you're shifting paragraphs around (maybe like you would a Rubic's cube), you will probably begin to wonder what the best arrangement really is. In general, put what you want the reader to remember either first or last, not in the middle. Studies in rhetoric have shown the readers remember least what is presented in the middle of an essay. Hence, the middle is where you should probably put your weaker arguments and counterarguments.

Some writers urge a climactic arrangement, one that works up to your strongest point, which is delivered as a kind of grand finale. Another successful arrangement is the inductive argument, in which you build up the evidence first, and then draw conclusions. A problem-solution format involves presenting the problem first and then outlining the solution — this works well for some topics because it is a soft version of the scientific method. Whatever your choice, choose an arrangement that presents a clear, logical argument.

 

Practice with Outlines

 


Tom Johnson. tjohnson@aucegypt.edu. Last updated May 2004.