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Writing An Essay Using An Outline

Using An Outline to Write A Paper

The main difference between outlining a reading and outlining your own paper is the source of the ideas.  When you outline something someone else wrote, you are trying to represent their ideas and structure.  When outlining your own paper, you will need to focus on your own ideas and how best to organize them.  Depending on the type of writing assignment, you might want to incorporate concepts and quotations from various other sources, but your interpretation of those ideas is still the most important element. Creating an outline based on the principles outlined above can help you to put your ideas in a logical order, so your paper will have a stronger, more effective argument.


Step 1: Figure out your main points and create the headings for your outline

Once you have come up with some ideas for your paper (through free-writing or through any of the techniques described in the Reading for Writing section of this website, you will need to organize those ideas.  The first step is to decide what your main points will be.  Use those main ideas as the headings for your outline.  Remember to start with your introduction as the first heading, add headings for each main idea in your argument, and finish with a conclusion.

For example, an outline for a five-paragraph essay on why I love my dog might have the following headings:


II. BODY PARAGRAPH 1: My Dog is a Good Companion

III. BODY PARAGRAPH 2: My Dog is Well-Behaved

IV. BODY PARAGRAPH 3: My Dog is Cute


Since the topic is why I love my dog, each of the body paragraphs will present one reason why I love my dog.  Always make sure your main ideas directly relate to your topic!

You can order your main ideas based on either the strength of your argument (i.e. put your most convincing point first) or on some other clear organizing principle.  A narrative on how you became a student at SPS would most likely follow a chronological approach, for example.  Don’t worry if you are not completely satisfied with the ordering; you can always change it later.  This is particularly easy if you are creating your outline in a word-processing program on a computer (which I would highly recommend): you can drag the items into different positions to test out different orderings and see which makes the most sense.


Step 2: Add your supporting ideas

The next step is to fill in supporting ideas for each of your main ideas.  Give any necessary explanations, descriptions, evidence, or examples to convince the reader that you are making a good point.  If you are using quotes, add those here.  Remember to include the appropriate citation based on whichever format your teacher requires; having that information in your outline will speed things up when you write your paper (since you won’t have to go hunting for the bibliographic information) and make it easier to avoid plagiarism.

To continue the example above, I might fill in part II of the outline as follows:

II. Body Paragraph 1: My Dog is a Good Companion

A. My dog is fun

1. My dog likes to play

2. My dog likes to go on walks

B. My dog is friendly

1. My dog likes to cuddle

2. My dog likes people

This section is focused on the idea that I love my dog because he is a good companion.  The two first-level subheadings are general reasons why he is a good companion: he is fun (A) and he is friendly (B).  Each of those ideas is then further explained through examples.  My dog is fun because he like to play and go on walks.  I know my dog is friendly since he enjoys cuddling and like people.  I could add even more detail by including specific games my dog likes to play, behaviors that tell me he like to go on walks, and so.  The more detail you add, the easier it will be to write you paper later on!

In terms of how to organize your subheadings, again try to present these supporting ideas in a logical order.  Group similar ideas together, move from general concepts to more specific examples or explanations, and make sure each supporting idea directly relates to the heading or subheading under which it falls.

When you have finished adding supporting ideas, read through the outline to see if there is anywhere you think your argument has holes or could be further fleshed out.  Make sure that your ideas are in the most logical order.  Don’t be afraid to test out different orderings to see what makes the most sense!


Step 3: Turn your headings and subheadings into complete sentences

Once you have added as much detail as possible and your outline is complete, save it as a new file on your computer (or type it into the computer).  If your main and supporting ideas in the outline are not already in sentence form, turn each item into one or more complete sentences. This will help you to see more clearly idea where to divide up your paragraphs.  When writing a short to medium length paper, each heading (or main idea) will typically correspond to one paragraph.  For longer papers, each heading may be a section and your first (or even second) level of subheading will eventually become your paragraphs.  See how many sentences fall under each heading to get a rough idea of what correspondence makes the most sense for your paper.


Step 4: Construct your paragraphs

Next, start at the beginning of your outline and go through point by point.  Delete the outline formatting (indentations and letter/numeral designations) and start to put your sentences together into paragraphs.  You may need to add transition phrases or even extra sentences to make sure your prose flows naturally.  You might also find that even though your ideas seemed to make sense in the outline, you need to add still more details here or change the order of your ideas for everything to fully make sense.  You may even find that you have too many ideas or that some ideas are not really all that relevant and need to be cut.  That is perfectly normal.  The outline is a plan to help you get organized, but you always have the flexibility to change it to fit the needs of your assignment.

Remember to start a new paragraph whenever you introduce a new idea (or when a paragraph has gotten very long and the reader needs a break).  Again, you will probably want to add transition phrases or sentences to connect each paragraph to what came before and to help the reader follow your argument.

Once you have finished turning your outline into paragraphs, you should have a decent first draft of your paper.  Now you just need to proofread and revise (and repeat) until you are ready to turn in your assignment!


Using Outlines

Many writers use an outline to help them think through the various stages of the writing process. An outline is a kind of graphic scheme of the organization of your paper. It indicates the main arguments for your thesis as well as the subtopics under each main point. Outlines range from an informal use of indenting and graphics (such as —, *, +) to a formal use of Roman numerals and letters. Regardless of the degree of formality, however, the function of an outline is to help you consider the most effective way to say what you want to say.

Outlines usually grow out of working plans for papers. For shorter, less complex papers, a few informal notes jotted down may be enough. But longer papers are too big to organize mentally; you generally need a more systematic plan to organize the various parts of the paper. Preparing an outline will help you think over your notes, consider them from several perspectives, and devise/revise an organizational plan appropriate to your topic, audience, and assignment. An outline that accompanies the final draft of a paper can also function as a table of contents for the reader.

When you think of outlines, you usually think of an organizational plan to help you draft a paper, but you can outline at any one of the several stages of the writing process. At each stage, the outline serves a different function and helps you answer different writing questions:


While you are researching a topic, you can make a tentative outline--a plan for your paper based on what you are learning from your research. This kind of outline helps you answer the questions: What do I know a lot about already? What do I need to research more?

Here is an example of a tentative outline a student used to begin doing research for an essay comparing three different political theories: neo-Marxism, pluralism, and elitism. The writer already knew about two of the theories, but needed more information about the third.

Neo-Marxism -power to minority -emphasizes economics Pluralism -power to interest groups -shifting coalitions of groups Elitism -definition -description Analysis: United States -neo-Marxist -pluralist -elitist


During pre-writing, you can make a working outline--an outline that guides you in your drafting. It helps you answer the question: How am I going to present my information, given my thesis, my assignment and my audience?

The student who wrote the tentative outline above also wrote the one below before beginning her essay. She wanted to describe the three political theories and then compare them by using each to analyze the government of a particular country, arguing that neo-Marxism is the most useful theory. Her working outline isn't very formal, but it fulfills the functions of a good outline.

  • It supports the thesis.
  • It establishes the order and relationship of the main points.
  • It clarifies the relationship between the major and minor points.

Here's what the student's second outline looked like:

* Introduction - theories are simpler than real life - theories are tools * Three Political Theories - Neo-Marxism - power to minority - importance of economic control - Pluralism - power to interest groups - interest groups form coalitions - Elitism - power to elite - how elite is defined * Compare analysis of United States - Neo-Marxist - Pluralist - Elitist

Your job as the writer is to think through the relationship between your ideas. For example, is one idea similar to or different from another? Is one a cause of another? An effect? An example? Is one idea the solution to another? Do two points represent different categories of a larger idea? In other words, do your ideas fall into one of the conventional approaches to thinking about an issue: cause-effect, problem-solution, comparison-contrast, definition, classification? You can use these standard approaches to help you think through your ideas and come up with a logical plan. That plan then becomes your outline.

While drafting, you can make a draft or descriptive outline--an outline that is based on your draft. It describes each of your paragraphs so that you can critique your organization. It helps you answer the questions: Does my draft flow logically from point to point? Have I discussed similar ideas in the same section or do I seem to jump around?

This is a draft outline the above-mentioned student made after writing the first draft of her paper. She summarized the draft, paragraph by paragraph, and then took a look at what the outline revealed.

Paragraph 1 -- General introduction to political theories, Thesis: neo-Marxism most useful
Paragraph 2 -- Description of neo-Marxism
Paragraph 3 -- Description of pluralism
Paragraph 4 -- Coalitions of interest groups
Paragraph 5 -- Description of elitism
Paragraph 6 -- Pluralist analysis of U.S.
Paragraph 7 -- Neo-Marxist analysis of U.S.
Paragraph 8 -- Strengths of neo-Marxist analysis, Weaknesses of neo-Marxism and Pluralism
Paragraph 9 -- Weaknesses of elitism
Paragraph 10 -- Conclusion

She noticed that the descriptions of neo-Marxism and elitism were each in a single paragraph, but the description of pluralism took two paragraphs. She decided to be consistent by combining paragraphs 3 and 4. She also noticed that the second half of the paper seemed to jump around from theory to theory, presenting each theory's analysis and then each theory's weaknesses. She decided to put the pluralist analysis of the U.S. and the weaknesses of the analysis together in paragraph 6, the elitist analysis and its weaknesses into a paragraph together, and then devote two paragraphs to the neo-Marxist analysis and its strengths and weaknesses.


Finally, you may also be required to write a formal outline--an outline that serves as a guide to your paper for your reader. If you haven't already been making formal outlines, this outline will be a formal version of your previous notes; it lays out your main points and subpoints for your reader. Generally, this kind of outline uses conventions of formal outlining: Roman numerals, letters and indentations. Sometimes this sort of outline can be produced after you have written your essay.

Formal outlines can be written in two ways. In topic outlines, the ideas are expressed in parallel phrases (in other words, they are expressed in the same grammatical form--as noun phrases, as verb phrases, etc.). Topic outlines have the advantage of being brief. In sentence outlines, on the other hand, the ideas are expressed in complete, though not necessarily parallel, sentences. Sentence outlines give the reader a clearer idea of what you will argue.

Regardless of the kind of formal outline you choose, convention states that you begin with a statement of your thesis and indicate increasing levels of support in this order: I., A., 1., a., (1), (a). In scientific papers, however, a decimal system is also commonly used. A topic outline follows:

I. Functions of political theories A. Tools to help understand governments 1. Categorization 2. Comparison B. Limitation: Over-simplification II. Three political theories A. Neo-Marxism 1. Definition 2. Description B. Pluralism 1. Definition 2. Description C. Elitism 1. Definition 2. Description III. Comparative analysis of U.S. government A. Pluralism 1. Analysis 2. Weaknesses B. Elitism 1. Analysis 2. Weaknesses C. Neo-Marxism 1. Analysis 2. Critique a. Strengths b. Weaknesses IV. Conclusion

Notice in a formal outline, whenever a point is subdivided, there are at least two subpoints. Logic and convention state that when you divide a point, you can divide it into no fewer than two subpoints.

Remember, depending on how your research or writing is going, you may need to make use of any or all of the outlines described in this article.

Produced by Writing Tutorial Services, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN

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