Create An Outline For An Essay

Outlines can be a helpful tool when you're trying to organize your thoughts for an essay or research paper.  After you've decided on a topic and done some brainstorming to generate ideas, think about the best way to group your ideas together.

Ask yourself:  What is my main point or purpose in writing this paper?  The answer will help you form a thesis statement. 

Ask yourself:  Can I list at least 3 larger concepts that will support my main idea?  These larger topics will make up the body paragraph sections of your outline.

Ask yourself:  How can I organize the rest of my ideas so that they fit within these larger categories?  These ideas will make up the sub-topics of your outline. 

Ask yourself:  What else do I want or need to say about this topic to fulfill my assignment?  These additions should be placed on your outline, as well.

A Note About Formatting:  Outlines usually follow a specific format using parallelism, Roman Numerals, upper case letters, and sometimes numbers to indicate ideas with different levels of importance.  Unless your instructor is planning to collect and grade your outline based on proper formatting, try not to get too hung up on making sure that you're formatting each section properly.  The important thing to remember is that the outline is meant to be a helpful organizational tool--compose your outline in such a way that it will be helpful to you!

Example of a Formal Outline

  1. Introduction/Tentative Thesis
  2. Main Topic 1
    1. Support 1
    2. Evidence 1
    3. Example 1
    4. Support 1
  3. Main Topic 2
    1. Support 2
    2. Evidence 2
  4. Main Topic 3
    1. Evidence 3
    2. Example 1
    3. Support 1
  5. Conclusion
    1. Topic 1
    2. Topic 2
    3. Topic 3

Reverse Outline

A simpler, more informal type of outline can be helpful after you've written your rough draft.  If you find that your essays are often disorganized or you tend to struggle with transitions, reverse outlines might be a useful tool for you.

What is a reverse outline?  Reverse outlines are informal lists that are created after a rough draft has been written, to help you visually see what you're discussing in your essay

How do I create one?  You can make a formal outline if you want, but often the best type of reverse outline simply involves jotting down notes in the margins of your draft.  Follow these steps: 

  1. Read your introduction paragraph.  Underline your thesis statement.
  2. Read each body paragraph slowly.  Each time you finish a paragraph, jot down the main idea that the paragraph discussed, in the margins.
  3. Read each body paragraph again and jot down notes about the supporting information that was discussed in each paragraph, in the margins.
  4. Read your conclusion paragraph.  Check to make sure that it refers back to your thesis statement, but uses different words to do so.

In order to use this reverse outline as a revision tool, you'll need to take a look at the main ideas that have been presented.  Ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Do each of these body paragraph topics support my thesis statement?  (Consider removing anything that wanders away from your topic)
  2. Have I discussed the same idea or topic in multiple places throughout the draft?  (Group similar ideas together!)
  3. Have I used clear transitions to show how each paragraph relates to the surrounding paragraphs?  (If not, add connecting words or transitional phrases)
  4. Have I covered everything that I wanted to say about my topic?  (Look for holes in your information, then add paragraphs or sentences to fill them)
  5. Have I tried to cover too much information or rambled on about a particular idea for a long time?  (Narrow your topic and/or remove unnecessary words)

3. Creating a Thesis Statement & Outline

I.What is a thesis statement?

A thesis statement is usually a sentence that states your argument to the reader. It usually appears in the first paragraph of an essay.

II. Why do I need to write a thesis statement for a paper?

Your thesis statement states what you will discuss in your essay. Not only does it define the scope and focus of your essay, it also tells your reader what to expect from the essay.

A thesis statement can be very helpful in constructing the outline of your essay.

Also, your instructor may require a thesis statement for your paper.

III. How do I create a thesis statement?

A thesis statement is not a statement of fact. It is an assertive statement that states your claims and that you can prove with evidence. It should be the product of research and your own critical thinking. There are different ways and different approaches to write a thesis statement. Here are some steps you can try to create a thesis statement:

1. Start out with the main topic and focus of your essay.

Example: youth gangs + prevention and intervention programs

2. Make a claim or argument in one sentence.

Example: Prevention and intervention programs can stop youth gang activities.

3. Revise the sentence by using specific terms.

Example: Early prevention programs in schools are the most effective way to prevent youth gang involvement.

4. Further revise the sentence to cover the scope of your essay and make a strong statement.

Example: Among various prevention and intervention efforts that have been made to deal with the rapid growth of youth gangs, early school-based prevention programs are the most effective way to prevent youth gang involvement.

IV. Can I revise the thesis statement in the writing process?

Sure. In fact, you should keep the thesis statement flexible and revise it as needed. In the process of researching and writing, you may find new information that falls outside the scope of your original plan and want to incorporate it into your paper. Or you probably understand your thoughts more and shift the focus of your paper. Then you will need to revise your thesis statement while you are writing the paper.

V. Why do I need to make an outline when I already have a thesis statement?

An outline is the "road map" of your essay in which you list the arguments and subtopics in a logical order. A good outline is an important element in writing a good paper. An outline helps to target your research areas, keep you within the scope without going off-track, and it can also help to keep your argument in good order when writing the essay.

VI. How do I make an outline?

You list all the major topics and subtopics with key points that support them. Put similar topics and points together and arrange them in a logical order.

Include an Introduction, a Body, and a Conclusion in your outline. You can make an outline in a list format or a chart format.

Next Chapter: 4. Choosing Appropriate Resources

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