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Writing an Outline

An outline helps you develop your plan.  The organization of a paper is at least as important as the information included in it.  If the ideas are chaotic, scattered across different sections, or incomplete it does not matter how much work you put into the research.  Writing down your intentions helps you sort the information in a way that makes sense and helps you determine if you are meeting the goals.

The key to a successful outline, and paper, is the research.  If the outline is a graded assignment, be aware of when it is due.  You will have to conduct almost all your research PRIOR to this date.  You should create an outline even if it is not a graded assignment.  Your paper will be significantly improved by the organizational effort. 

If your professor requires an outline, specific guidance and standards will be provided.  This guide provides some best practices, but always follow your professor’s instructions.

Best practices for outlines

A full example of an outline can be found on the outline tab in this section.  Follow it as you read these techniques to see them in action.

1.  The first item on your outline needs to be your research question.  Place it at the top so you can refer to it often.  This helps you stay focused on your specific topics instead of taking off down interesting rabbit holes.

2.  Put it in outline form.  There is an example later in this guide but essentially you are creating a list of each main topic and each of the subtopics that will fall under it.  This will prevent you from repeating information in multiple parts of the paper and help you keep track of what you still need to work on.

3.  Do not get bogged down in the basic five paragraph essay you learned in elementary school.  Your essay may have two or more main topics, each of which will have numerous subtopic paragraphs within it.  Always keep in mind that your paper must be specific and contain analysis and synthesis.  You will have a specific number of words you are aiming for.  Meeting that with too many topics makes them generic.  You cannot provide the detail necessary if you are trying to do too much.

4.  For the outline itself, list your 2 to 4 main topics.  Within each topic section you need to include at least two subtopics.  A keyword or a short sentence helps you keep track of what you are focusing on in that section. 

5.  At the end of each line item, write the author or name of the source you got the information from and the page number.  When you get to the actual writing you will need to include footnotes.  Track them now so you are not spending time later looking for them again.  If your instructions specify certain types of sources, indicate when you have met those requirements.  For example, at the end of an item, put the author name and page number and the words primary source.  Putting the quote directly in your outline helps you remember why you chose it.

6.  If images are required, include the basic citation information and what you intend to use as a caption.  This will help you track why you chose that image.  A caption should explain how that image fits into the story you are telling.  It should be placed at the point in the text that it is relevant.  Images at the end have no context.

7.  Your professor may require a formatted bibliography.  If not, it is still a good idea to start developing this now.  An assumption is made that you got all your information from internet sources, especially the school databases.  A URL and accessed date is required for those.  A good idea is to put a sticky note on every PDF you save that includes the URL and accessed date.  It is always there when you need the information.

The objective of all this is to ensure that you have determined all the topics and are researching and writing about each topic as a separately entity.  It will also show that you have completed most your research and have organized your thoughts into the basic sections of your paper. 


Example structure:

This is an example only.  Fit your work to the information that fits it best.

            I.  Research Question

            II.  Introduction – very basic background that introduces the topics

                        Tentative Thesis

            III.  Topic One

                        Subtopic one with fact, source, page

                        Subtopic two with fact, source, page

                                    Primary source quote with source and source information

IV.  Topic Two

                        Subtopic one with fact, source, page

                                    Image with citation information and caption

                        Subtopic two with fact, source, page

  Subtopic three with fact, source, page

V.  Topic Three

                        Subtopic one with fact, source, page

                        Subtopic one with second/third fact, source, page

                        Subtopic two with fact, source, page

Primary source quote with source and source information

            VI.  Topics four, five, etc.  If your subject needs to be broken into more than four main topics, consider whether you need to refocus your research question.  It will probably end up being superficial.  Most papers will require 800-1200 words, so keep things narrow.

            VII.  Conclusion.  A conclusion is a restatement of what you covered, demonstrating how you proved your points.  Do not include new information.  You should be thinking about it early, though.

Tips, Tricks, and Techniques

1.  A common mistake students make is to latch on to one idea that is particularly interesting to them.  They end up mentioning it several times in one paper.  By creating a list of when you are going to discuss each item, you can avoid this, focusing only on the relevant material.

2.  Another common mistake students make is to put information together because they found it in the same source.  While a source may be targeted, providing all the information for a certain subtopic and not being used elsewhere, most sources are going to contain information that belongs in different sections.  Keep the topics together, not the source.

3.  When the outline is done well, all you have to do is convert your numbered items into sentences and your paper is written.  This also prevents plagiarism because the act of converting notes to sentences puts the information in your words.

4.  Save your thesis for last.  There are a lot of ways to write a good thesis, but you can make it simpler.  The job of the thesis is to show that you have answered your research question, so restate the question in statement form, including a list of all your main topics, in the order you will present them in the paper.  

5.  Don’t stress over length.  Consider the 1000 word essay.  Doing some math may help with the stress.  If you allot 100 words for the introduction and 150 words for the conclusion, a quarter of your paper is done already.  For three main topics, you need about 250 words each.  Three subtopics/points in each main topic gives you only 85 words to write about each.  Notice that this paragraph is 84 words long and you will see how easy it is to reach that goal. 

That is pretty much exactly what you need to make one point and provide the supporting evidence.

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