Outlining an essay can be done many different ways. You may have been taught to use Roman numerals in a very strict, lettered and numbered format. That’s one way to outline, and if it works well for you, that’s great. But if it doesn’t, there are other methods.
How to write an outline
Here’s the format I recommend for outlining an essay.
Introduction: Think about how you might begin your essay and jot down a note about it here.
Thesis statement: You’ll have worked out your thesis in the previous step of the writing process. Write it out here. It’s important to keep your thesis statement in front of you to help you stay focused.
Body paragraph one: Write down what will be the first main idea in support of your thesis. You can write it as a complete sentence if you’d like, but you don’t have to; a phrase that captures the idea is enough.
Details: here, jot down as many as possible of the supporting ideas you’ll use to develop the paragraph’s main idea. You don’t want to write sentences here, just phrases that will help you remember what you mean to say. You’ll turn these ideas into sentences when you draft.
Body paragraph two
Etc – insert as many body paragraphs as necessary to cover all your points.
Conclusion: If you have an idea about how you’d like to end your essay, jot it down here. While it may seem strange to plan your conclusion before you write the essay, you may find it helps you to know where you’re trying to go in the paper.
Basic Outline for an Essay
Let’s say you’re writing a paper about your dog. Here’s what your outline might look like.
Introduction: story about getting my dog when he was a puppy
Thesis: While caring for my dog has made me more patient and responsible, I’ve repaid many times over by the love I receive from him.
Body paragraph one: I’ve become more patient Details: all the times he did his business on the floor and I had to clean it up Having to wait for him when he did go outside Listening to him whine and cry at night
Body paragraph two: I’ve become more responsible Having to remember to check his water dish Having to walk him every day whether I feel like it or not Spending time training him to obey commands
Body paragraph three: all the love I get from him He greets me at the door every day like he thought I’d never come back He falls asleep curled up in my bed with me When I’m in a bad mood, he insists I play with him to cheer me up.
Conclusion: Though I can’t say that a best friend should pee on the floor and whine all night, I can truly say that my dog has become my best friend.
Other methods of outlining an essay
The basic outline works well for most students, but there are other choices.
If you need a super-fast outline, some forms of prewriting can be converted to an outline in minutes. Just take your listing or mapping, write out your thesis at the top, then number the points you want to use. For example, let’s say the following was an excerpt from your prewriting on the dog essay outlined above. Here’s how it would become an outline:
He falls asleep curled up in my bed with me – point 3 support
He greets me at the door every day like he thought I’d never come back – point 3 support
story about getting my dog when he was a puppy - introduction
all the times he did his business on the floor and I had to clean it up – point 1 support
Having to walk him every day whether I feel like it or not – point 2 support
I’ve become more patient – point 1
Another alternate method of outlining an essay is to make what amounts to a time line. It’s usually best to turn your page sideways for this.
Write your thesis statement across the top of the page and draw a line below it. At the far left of the line, make a note about your introduction. Then, moving from left to right, jot down the main idea of each body paragraph. Under those, you can write in a brief list of the details you plan to use to support each.
The advantage of this method is that it keeps each of your main ideas very close to your thesis statement, so you can easily see how they’re connected. If you tend to drift away from your point when you write, this method might work well for you. Also, you can make it visual by using a different color ink or highlighting for each paragraph, to clearly see which details go with which idea.
A final great method of outlining an essay for very visual people is a flow chart. Start by jotting down an idea from your introduction at the top of your page. Just under it, write out your thesis statement. Then, branching off from that, draw lines to each of the main ideas of your body paragraphs. Under those, lines will branch off to each of the supporting details. At the bottom of your page, the lines all come back together in the conclusion, written at the bottom center.
Again, this lets you easily visualize the structure of your essay and make sure all the details fit where you plan to use them. Make it even more visually organized by using different colors for each of your body paragraphs.
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