A Guide for Starting Outlines

By Jonathan Vivet

You might be asking yourself what is an outline, or you might even be thinking, “Outlines? I’m better than that.” Are you sure though? An outline, no matter what format yours takes, is an organized framework that you can use to write the rest of a document. A good outline can be integral to your writing process, helping you come up with ideas and organizing them in a useful way to help strengthen your writing. Not only will spending time and effort on an outline help make your piece better, in the long run it’ll help you write it faster too. So, if you’re convinced that outlining is a tool you can use regularly, a question remains—how do you do it?

First, identify what the purpose of your paper is. For Core Humanities it might be answering a prompt. For a research paper it might be to convince your reader of your findings. For a blog article it might be to teach a skill or for entertainment. Regardless of the purpose, defining why you are writing a paper and who you are writing for can help you identify the conversation your work will be a part of and even help you craft a working thesis. Once you have these ideas in hand, you can start the outline process.

For this blog I will be using alphanumeric notations to separate major subsections, but you can use letters or numbers just as easily depending on your preference. At this starting point you’re outline could look something along the lines of this:

  1. Intro
    1. Hook
    2. transitioning ideas
    3. Thesis

The hook is the point of interest or engagement for your audience that you begin with. Bare in mind that while I’m using “hook” because we so often do when discussing introductions, your point of engagement shouldn’t just be a gimmick like a startling statistic or polemical quote. Think about what information will be interesting to your audience that you can use to transition from your broad topic into your specific argument.

Next create a list of supporting points that will strengthen and develop your thesis. These points should be things that you can discuss at length, as they eventually will develop into topic sentences. From this list choose topics you feel support your thesis best and are broad enough that several sub points can be made within them. What you’ve just done is create a rough structure to base your body paragraphs on. Expanding your outline after step one, it might look something like this:

  1. Intro
    1. Hook
    2. Transition ideas
    3. Thesis
  2. Topic Sentence 1
  3. Topic Sentence 2
  4. Topic Sentence 3
  5. Topic Sentence 4

Now we’ve got a pretty rough idea of where this piece is going at this point. But adding even more to work with as you write will help overall hierarchy within the body paragraphs, aiding with your overall focus. Go back to each of your topic sentences and think of important sub points to include in each of them. If you are writing a piece that requires quotes or other forms of evidence, list them under the specific topic sentences they belongs to. That way when writing the first draft all you need to do is copy from the outline. Our updated outline might look like this:

  1. Intro
    1. Hook
    2. Transitioning Ideas
    3. Thesis
  2. Topic Sentence 1
    1. Evidence
    2. Evidence
  3. Topic Sentence 2
    1. Evidence
  4. Topic Sentence 3
    1. Evidence
    2. Evidence
  5. Topic Sentence 4
    1. Evidence

This outline is starting to look pretty useful at this point. But we can take it a few steps further. Adding a few words that sum up the analysis you intend to include for each source of evidence being used will help not only with organization, but also shows where you may need to add more content or find better evidence to back up your claims. Last, adding a conclusion section will round out and complete this outline.

  1. Intro
  2. Topic Sentence 1
    1. Evidence
      1. Analysis
    2. Evidence
      1. Analysis
  3. Topic Sentence 2
    1. Evidence
      1. Analysis
  4. Topic Sentence 3
    1. Evidence
      1. Analysis
    2. Evidence
      1. Analysis
  5. Conclusion
    1. New explanation of argument
    2. Discuss significance to broader purpose
    3. What comes next?

In offering a new explanation for your argument, don’t just copy or restate your thesis. Instead, frame your argument in relation to the broader significance your analysis has to your audience. Why is your paper important to the conversation? Then, you can discuss the conversations or research that can now develop in light of this significance.

There you go. With all your arguments, ideas, evidence, and commentary laid out, writing your paper should be quick and easy work. By outlining effectively a rough draft of your piece is all but created, needing you only to connect the dots you’ve already laid out.

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