I know that a lot of people think that writing an essay outline is a waste of time. I’m here to convince you otherwise. I spent all of my high school years and at least one of my university years as an anti-outliner, but I finally realized that, for years, I’d been going about my papers in the wrong way.
Why should you write an outline?
Believe it or not, I find that the most difficult part of an essay is the outline, but I also think that it’s the most important (aside, of course, from the actual essay itself). I say it’s difficult because I use it as a tool to organize my ideas and to clarify my argument, and I find those aspects of essays to require the most brainpower. Once I’ve outlined my main points, I can see if any part of my thesis remains unsupported (rare) or if any of my points are digressions from my argument (basically every essay I’ve ever written). At that point, if I need to, I can cut out some points or do some more research. It’s also pretty great for making sure that your paper is balanced – nobody likes to read eight pages about your first point, and only two pages about your second.
Another bonus of having an outline is that you can take it to your TA for feedback. It’s one thing to have a TA approve your thesis (something I always recommend before beginning to write), but, if your TA can see your whole outline (and is so inclined), she or he can suggest where your argument needs more support or where you should rearrange your ideas.
How should you write an outline?
I have no one answer for this question. If you find a way that works for you, stick with it; if not, try something else. You want your outline to put your thoughts in order: you should try to have your ideas build on each other throughout your paper. In a strong essay, intentional paragraph order is important – you shouldn’t be able to randomly rearrange your paragraphs and have your argument still make as much sense, or “flow” as well from one point to another. Another thing to keep in mind is that you don’t need to prove your entire thesis in every paragraph. Work through it bit by bit, and support those bits with different paragraphs.
Personally, I like to outline by word count. I tend to write short essays, and I find that if I ascribe a certain number of words to each concept, it keeps me on track. I also like to colour code my outline (usually with highlighter dots), both because it looks pretty and because I can then go through my notes and mark the points that go in each section of my paper. From there, all I have to do is group all of my pink dots and all of my green dots, and then my essay practically writes itself.
Another method that I know is popular, especially if you’re technologically savvy and like to type up your notes, is to create your outline by cutting and pasting your notes into groups of main points. After that, you can just reword your clumps of notes into coherent sentences, and again, your essay is essentially writing itself.
If neither of those methods appeal to you, check out the Writing Centre’s handout on outlines: http://sass.queensu.ca/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2013/06/Creating-Outlines.pdf.
Good luck with your essays, and until next time, happy writing!
Image of Sylvia Plath’s Bell Jar outline courtesy of http://michelleboydwaters.com/handwritten-outlines-of-famous-authors/ under the Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-No-Derivations 2.0 license.