Many students, an outline might seem redundant. “I’m writing the essay. Why do I have to write an outline too?” Sometimes they don’t realize that the outline serves as the skeleton upon which the body (their essay) is built.
While writing an outline might seem counterproductive at first, it’s really not. Instead, it provides mileposts for each step of the way. Outlines keep student writers from getting lost or straying from their intended point.
The best place to start when writing the outline is deciding what one’s major points will be. For example, if a student plans to write a five-paragraph essay on good reasons to own a pet, she might make these her major points:
II. Pets provide companionship
III. Pets encourage responsibility
IV. Pets reduce stress
She’s not done with writing her outline by a long shot, but she has the main ideas down. She can now drill down to deeper levels. The more specific and detailed she gets, the easier her essay will be to write, because she will simply follow her outline point by point.
The next level uses uppercase letters (A, B, C, and so on) and each new, deeper level is indented further than the last (some word processing programs, such as Microsoft Word, have automatic outlining; once the writer starts, the software “recognizes” what the student is doing and sets up the format).
The third level uses Arabic numerals (1, 2, and 3), and the fourth level uses lowercase letters (a, b, and c). If the student has a 1 in his outline, he must have a 2; if he has an A, he must have a B. If he doesn’t have enough information for at least a second part of that level, then the sublevel should probably be absorbed into the level above. For example, the student might have an outline like this:
So far, so good. But, let’s say, the student wants to add under 4. Doctorate this information:
Writing a thesis
If the student has “a,” he must have a “b.” Otherwise, he shouldn’t list it. He can either “absorb” it into the upper level or just know that his “a” information is included in the information he will be discussing. To absorb the information, he can do this:
Doctorate (including writing a thesis)
Some levels will need to be taken to very specific levels, whereas others don’t need much detail. For example, a basic introduction probably wouldn’t need more than a second level:
However, if a different paragraph needs a lot more detail, a student might need to provide several levels. For example, using the outline levels above, perhaps a student would come up with these secondary levels for IV. Pets reduce stress:
People with stressful jobs
Again, it’s ultimately up to the student as to how much detail he wants to provide for his outline, but the more detail, the easier his essay will be to write.
While there are many activities students will often do before actually writing an essay, preparing an outline is sometimes the most important step, especially if a student has to write a lengthy term paper. An outline provides focus and clarity as well as a step-by-step map for writing one’s essay. Students who struggle with writing an essay will likely find an outline helps them tremendously.