College Basics: Writing an Essay Outline

Before I get into essay writing itself, I want to take a little time to introduce the idea of writing an outline. If you’re a seasoned writer, you might be able to get away with writing 3-5 page essays without putting together an outline first, but even you, oh even you, will need the help of an outline when you get to 15-20 page papers and onto a graduate thesis. I have here a few steps that I’ve taken throughout college and grad school to get myself started with writing essays.

The first thing is to get a basic idea of what the paper is about. Yes, this means thinking up a rough cut of your thesis statement. This is usually the first thing that I write on my outline, and is the main point of reference as I go through body paragraphs and into the conclusion. Sometimes, it is only one word or phrase. For example, when I wrote an essay about Richard Wright’s haiku my outlined thesis was “R.W.’s haiku that use the phrase ‘just enough of…’”. That was it. Later on, I returned and added to it with information I figured out during the course of writing my outline and rough drafts. Keep in mind, an outline will change a lot—the first stuff you write will probably change, sometimes it will change entirely, and that’s okay. This is to get you started and keep you organized as you figure out what you’re writing.

Second, I would write out short sentences expressing topics I wanted to write about in the body paragraphs. I started with really short sentences, much like the practice thesis statement, so that I didn’t get stuck writing about something that wasn’t working out. I would often think I had a really good idea, but would later figure out that it was off topic, too thin, or didn’t really interest me enough to write about. Bullet points work well and so does writing in a notebook with each spread a few lines apart so that you can have space to draft. 

Screen Shot 2017-08-04 at 9.23.26 AM
This is an example of how I start an outline on my computer. Pretty simple, right?

Once, I’d gone through the body paragraphs and figured out what would work and what wouldn’t, I would go back to my introductory paragraph outline and fine tune it. After figuring out what the body of the essay would contain, it was easy to write an actual thesis statement that would lead the reader into my essay. Once that was on target, I would begin on my conclusion, working on a sentence that rephrased my thesis statement and tied off the essay without any loose strings.

With all of the parts basically started, I would then get to the essay. I started with the introduction and its thesis statement and wrote from there, referring back to the thesis as I approached each new body paragraph.

As you start writing longer and longer papers, you may want to consider outlining different sections. With a ten page paper, even, you wouldn’t need to worry about it, but as the page count really starts to climb, having a section for important focal points makes the outlining and writing processes a little easier.

It might seem like writing an outline will add to the time it takes to write the essay, but really it makes things go a lot smoother. There were times before I outlines when I would write entire paragraphs just to scrap them before turning it in. When you’re working on assignments for multiple classes and have a life to live, writing an outline keeps the work stream lined and (relatively) stress free.

Stay tuned for posts with essay writing tips, further explanations of parts of essays, and more to get your through school. As always, study hard!


Author: poeticallyatlarge

I am a writer, a bookworm, and a poet at large.

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