You are probably not alone. Most students hate creating an outline. They see outlines as difficult and cannot get their minds around planning a paper. When I was a student, I was not a fan of outlines either, but once I discovered that outlines can be simple and started thinking of them as checklists, I found that outlines are really a way to cut down on the time it takes to write a paper.
Begin thinking of an outline as a checklist. It really is no different than a to-do list or a shopping list. Say you go Christmas shopping, and you have a number of family members and friends you need to get gifts for. You create a list with the names of people and ideas of what you might buy for them. Then as you buy, you cross names off the list. An outline works the same way for your paper.
You plan your paper by creating an outline, and then you use the outline as a checklist as you write your paper, and after you have written your paper, put it next to the outline you created and check off each topic in the outline as you review your paper. Did you cover each topic in the outline? Did you address each topic in the same order as given in the outline?
Before you sit down to write your paper, you need to plan it. There are questions you need to ask yourself.
- What is the assignment? (What type of essay are you being asked to write?)
- What is the purpose of the essay? (To inform? To describe a process? To prove something? …)
- Who is your audience? (Who would read your essay besides your instructor?)
- What is the thesis of the essay? (What is the main point I want to get across?)
Once you have answered those questions, you should give your paper a working title. The working title along with your thesis will help you focus your thoughts for your paper. The title, like the outline, can change along the way.
The most important thing to remember when you create an outline is to keep it simple. Think checklist. For most people, a topic outline is the way to go. All papers begin with an introduction. If your introduction is only one paragraph, then the first topic can be simply “Introduction.”
Now decide the main points you want to cover in your paper. For instance, if I was to write a paper describing the water cycle, I would figure out each step of the water cycle. Since it is a cycle, I can begin the steps wherever I want, so I have to figure out the main point of the paper to help me determine what step I should have first. Do I want to cover the scarcity of water in West Coast? Then I would want to end the paper with where the water goes and begin the paper with evaporation. So I outline the major steps like this:
- Water Collection
- Water Scarcity
The next step is deciding the level of detail that the outline should have. This is a simple paper, so while I need to go beyond the basic, I only need to drill down one more level for some topics. Notice that I do not drill down more levels for each of the major topics. How complex your outline is depends on how long and how complex your paper should be. Remember: You do not need to have the same number of subtopics for each main topic.
- Simple Evaporation
- Water Collection
- Water Scarcity
Now as I write my paper, I will refer to the outline and make sure I am covering each topic in the same order as my outline.
Rule 1: Outlines can take various forms and use either bullets or alpha/numeric labels. But the one thing all lists follow is a parallel format. Notice that my outline uses noun labels. I could just as easily use verb phrases, but whatever form I choose, I need to keep that form throughout the outline.
Rule 2: Once you have created an outline, know that the outline can be changed as you explore your topic more and begin writing your paper. Both the outline and paper are ever-changing until you turn the essay in.
Try creating an outline for your next paper. Keep it simple, but see if the outline does not help you to organize your thoughts and write a better paper.