How To Use An Outline When Writing An Essay

Trying to devise a structure for your essay can be one of the most difficult parts of the writing process. Making a detailed outline before you begin writing is a good way to make sure your ideas come across in a clear and logical order. A good outline will also save you time in the revision process, reducing the possibility that your ideas will need to be rearranged once you've written them.

The First Steps

Before you can begin outlining, you need to have a sense of what you will argue in the essay. From your analysis and close readings of primary and/or secondary sources you should have notes, ideas, and possible quotes to cite as evidence. Let's say you are writing about the 1999 Republican Primary and you want to prove that each candidate's financial resources were the most important element in the race. At this point, your notes probably lack much coherent order. Most likely, your ideas are still in the order in which they occurred to you; your notes and possible quotes probably still adhere to the chronology of the sources you've examined. Your goal is to rearrange your ideas, notes, and quotes—the raw material of your essay—into an order that best supports your argument, not the arguments you've read in other people's works. To do this, you have to group your notes into categories and then arrange these categories in a logical order.


The first step is to look over each individual piece of information that you've written and assign it to a general category. Ask yourself, "If I were to file this in a database, what would I file it under?" If, using the example of the Republican Primary, you wrote down an observation about John McCain's views on health care, you might list it under the general category of  "Health care policy." As you go through your notes, try to reuse categories whenever possible. Your goal is to reduce your notes to no more than a page of category listings.

Now examine your category headings. Do any seem repetitive? Do any go together? "McCain's expenditure on ads" and "Bush's expenditure on ads," while not exactly repetitive, could easily combine into a more general category like "Candidates' expenditures on ads." Also, keep an eye out for categories that no longer seem to relate to your argument. Individual pieces of information that at first seemed important can begin to appear irrelevant when grouped into a general category.

Now it's time to generalize again. Examine all your categories and look for common themes. Go through each category and ask yourself, "If I were to place this piece of information in a file cabinet, what would I label that cabinet?" Again, try to reuse labels as often as possible: "Health Care," "Foreign Policy," and "Immigration" can all be contained under "Policy Initiatives." Make these larger categories as general as possible so that there are no more than three or four for a 7-10 page paper.


With your notes grouped into generalized categories, the process of ordering them should be easier. To begin, look at your most general categories. With your thesis in mind, try to find a way that the labels might be arranged in a sentence or two that supports your argument. Let's say your thesis is that financial resources played the most important role in the 1999 Republican Primary. Your four most general categories are "Policy Initiatives," "Financial Resources," "Voters' Concerns," and "Voters' Loyalty." You might come up with the following sentence: ÒAlthough McCain's policy initiatives were closest to the voters' concerns, Bush's financial resources won the voters' loyalty.Ó This sentence should reveal the order of your most general categories. You will begin with an examination of McCain's and Bush's views on important issues and compare them to the voters' top concerns. Then you'll look at both candidates' financial resources and show how Bush could win voters' loyalty through effective use of his resources, despite his less popular policy ideas.

With your most general categories in order, you now must order the smaller categories. To do so, arrange each smaller category into a sentence or two that will support the more general sentence you've just devised. Under the category of "Financial Resources," for instance, you might have the smaller categories of "Ad Expenditure," "Campaign Contributions" and "Fundraising." A sentence that supports your general argument might read: "Bush's early emphasis on fundraising led to greater campaign contributions, allowing him to have a greater ad expenditure than McCain."

The final step of the outlining process is to repeat this procedure on the smallest level, with the original notes that you took for your essay. To order what probably was an unwieldy and disorganized set of information at the beginning of this process, you need now only think of a sentence or two to support your general argument. Under the category "Fundraising," for example, you might have quotes about each candidate's estimation of its importance, statistics about the amount of time each candidate spent fundraising, and an idea about how the importance of fundraising never can be overestimated. Sentences to support your general argument might read: "No candidate has ever raised too much money [your idea]. While both McCain and Bush acknowledged the importance of fundraising [your quotes], the numbers clearly point to Bush as the superior fundraiser [your statistics]." The arrangement of your ideas, quotes, and statistics now should come naturally.

Putting It All Together

With these sentences, you have essentially constructed an outline for your essay. The most general ideas, which you organized in your first sentence, constitute the essay's sections. They follow the order in which you placed them in your sentence. The order of the smaller categories within each larger category (determined by your secondary sentences) indicates the order of the paragraphs within each section. Finally, your last set of sentences about your specific notes should show the order of the sentences within each paragraph. An outline for the essay about the 1999 Republican Primary (showing only the sections worked out here) would look something like this:




            A.  Fundraising

                        a.  Original Idea

                        b.  McCain Quote/Bush Quote

                        c.  McCain Statistics/Bush Statistics

            B.  Campaign Contributions

            C.  Ad Expenditure


Copyright 2000, David Kornhaber, for the Writing Center at Harvard University

Using An Outline to Write A Paper

The main difference between outlining a reading and outlining your own paper is the source of the ideas.  When you outline something someone else wrote, you are trying to represent their ideas and structure.  When outlining your own paper, you will need to focus on your own ideas and how best to organize them.  Depending on the type of writing assignment, you might want to incorporate concepts and quotations from various other sources, but your interpretation of those ideas is still the most important element. Creating an outline based on the principles outlined above can help you to put your ideas in a logical order, so your paper will have a stronger, more effective argument.


Step 1: Figure out your main points and create the headings for your outline

Once you have come up with some ideas for your paper (through free-writing or through any of the techniques described in the Reading for Writing section of this website, you will need to organize those ideas.  The first step is to decide what your main points will be.  Use those main ideas as the headings for your outline.  Remember to start with your introduction as the first heading, add headings for each main idea in your argument, and finish with a conclusion.

For example, an outline for a five-paragraph essay on why I love my dog might have the following headings:


II. BODY PARAGRAPH 1: My Dog is a Good Companion

III. BODY PARAGRAPH 2: My Dog is Well-Behaved

IV. BODY PARAGRAPH 3: My Dog is Cute


Since the topic is why I love my dog, each of the body paragraphs will present one reason why I love my dog.  Always make sure your main ideas directly relate to your topic!

You can order your main ideas based on either the strength of your argument (i.e. put your most convincing point first) or on some other clear organizing principle.  A narrative on how you became a student at SPS would most likely follow a chronological approach, for example.  Don’t worry if you are not completely satisfied with the ordering; you can always change it later.  This is particularly easy if you are creating your outline in a word-processing program on a computer (which I would highly recommend): you can drag the items into different positions to test out different orderings and see which makes the most sense.


Step 2: Add your supporting ideas

The next step is to fill in supporting ideas for each of your main ideas.  Give any necessary explanations, descriptions, evidence, or examples to convince the reader that you are making a good point.  If you are using quotes, add those here.  Remember to include the appropriate citation based on whichever format your teacher requires; having that information in your outline will speed things up when you write your paper (since you won’t have to go hunting for the bibliographic information) and make it easier to avoid plagiarism.

To continue the example above, I might fill in part II of the outline as follows:

II. Body Paragraph 1: My Dog is a Good Companion

A. My dog is fun

1. My dog likes to play

2. My dog likes to go on walks

B. My dog is friendly

1. My dog likes to cuddle

2. My dog likes people

This section is focused on the idea that I love my dog because he is a good companion.  The two first-level subheadings are general reasons why he is a good companion: he is fun (A) and he is friendly (B).  Each of those ideas is then further explained through examples.  My dog is fun because he like to play and go on walks.  I know my dog is friendly since he enjoys cuddling and like people.  I could add even more detail by including specific games my dog likes to play, behaviors that tell me he like to go on walks, and so.  The more detail you add, the easier it will be to write you paper later on!

In terms of how to organize your subheadings, again try to present these supporting ideas in a logical order.  Group similar ideas together, move from general concepts to more specific examples or explanations, and make sure each supporting idea directly relates to the heading or subheading under which it falls.

When you have finished adding supporting ideas, read through the outline to see if there is anywhere you think your argument has holes or could be further fleshed out.  Make sure that your ideas are in the most logical order.  Don’t be afraid to test out different orderings to see what makes the most sense!


Step 3: Turn your headings and subheadings into complete sentences

Once you have added as much detail as possible and your outline is complete, save it as a new file on your computer (or type it into the computer).  If your main and supporting ideas in the outline are not already in sentence form, turn each item into one or more complete sentences. This will help you to see more clearly idea where to divide up your paragraphs.  When writing a short to medium length paper, each heading (or main idea) will typically correspond to one paragraph.  For longer papers, each heading may be a section and your first (or even second) level of subheading will eventually become your paragraphs.  See how many sentences fall under each heading to get a rough idea of what correspondence makes the most sense for your paper.


Step 4: Construct your paragraphs

Next, start at the beginning of your outline and go through point by point.  Delete the outline formatting (indentations and letter/numeral designations) and start to put your sentences together into paragraphs.  You may need to add transition phrases or even extra sentences to make sure your prose flows naturally.  You might also find that even though your ideas seemed to make sense in the outline, you need to add still more details here or change the order of your ideas for everything to fully make sense.  You may even find that you have too many ideas or that some ideas are not really all that relevant and need to be cut.  That is perfectly normal.  The outline is a plan to help you get organized, but you always have the flexibility to change it to fit the needs of your assignment.

Remember to start a new paragraph whenever you introduce a new idea (or when a paragraph has gotten very long and the reader needs a break).  Again, you will probably want to add transition phrases or sentences to connect each paragraph to what came before and to help the reader follow your argument.

Once you have finished turning your outline into paragraphs, you should have a decent first draft of your paper.  Now you just need to proofread and revise (and repeat) until you are ready to turn in your assignment!


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