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Creating Outlines for Use in Writing Essays and Term Papers
By Joan Whetzel
It’s that time of year again, the beginning of another school year, bringing with it the assurance of teachers handing out essay and term paper assignments. Once the research is done, the question becomes: How do you take that pile of notes and turn it into piece of great writing? The answer? By creating a great working outline first. The working outline's main purpose revolves around showing areas of the research that need more research. The working outline also sets up a general essay writing roadmap that can be re-arranged or tweaked at any point during the writing process if a problem with flow develops. Think of it more as a brainstorming step before transitioning to the stage of writing the rough draft.
Know the Paper's Purpose or Topic
First things first. Know the teacher's reason for assigning the essay, or, in the case of term papers, know the teacher's topic. Also take note of the teacher's parameters for the finished paper and keep them in mind during the research, outlining and writing process. The teacher's parameters may include any of the following: length, typed or handwritten, font and font size, margins, in-text citations, proper quotation format, bibliography, endnotes or footnotes. Make notations on the working outline so it's obvious where these some of these things (quotations, citations, footnotes, endnotes) should be included in the final paper. If necessary, write the "purpose" or "topic" at the top of the working outline as a reminder or to keep the outline and paper focused.
Research, Notes, and Organizing the information.
Second things second. Do the research for the essay or term paper. Take copious notes. Separate notes by topic points. Make notations or draw symbols that indicate points that seem to be more or less important than others. As you take notes, keep all the bibliography information with the notes for that source. Write the bibliography information in correct bibliography format (the teacher will provide this information with the parameters for the paper; if not ask).
Take notes either on paper, on index cards, or using a computer word processing program. Index cards can be stacked and organized in the general arrangement that the working outline will be in. Paper notes can be cut apart and organized in the same manner as the index cards. With the index card and paper note-taking methods, care will have to be taken to remember which notes and quotes came from which resource for citation, endnote or footnote purposes.
Probably the easiest way to organize notes into an outline is to use the word processing program. Type in the notes under the bibliography resource entries and save that as one file labeled "notes". Then organize the working outline by cutting and pasting from the notes file to the working outline, and saving the working outline in a separate file. Either way, as the working outline is being created, keep asking: Does this piece of information satisfy the paper's purpose or topic? If the information doesn't quite seem to fit, set it aside for a while. If it obviously doesn't fit, discard it.
Working Outline: The Set Up
Set up the working outline like any other outline. Use Roman numerals for the Introduction, the main points and the conclusion. Indent and use capitol English letters for the main supporting evidence for each main point. Switch to Arabic numbers and indent again to include details and important information connected to the supporting evidence. Indent again and use lowercase English letters for finer points (these may or may not be included in the final paper depending on whether the add to or detract from the topic and the flow of the paper). For longer papers, like term papers, the main points listed next to the Roman numerals can be used to create sub-headings, which break the paper into smaller sections and make it easier to read.
Highlight, use symbols, or write notes in the margin when going over the working outline, before beginning the writing process. Make note of areas where more research is needed, where some tweaking or re-organization may be needed, or where quotations, endnotes, footnotes, or in-text citations belong. Use different color highlighters or ink that give special significance to each notation. Red of really important, yellow for "caution", purple for citations … whatever symbols or colors are used they should hold significance to the student creating the outline and writing the paper.
Intro: Rough Draft
The information used to write the introduction may be the same as that used to write the conclusion. From the notes set aside for the introduction / conclusion, write a rough, rough draft of the introduction that gives an indication of what information will be presented in the paper, without stating it outright.
Wrong Way: "I am writing this paper to tell you how to create a working outline. I will back it up with supporting evidence or information. Then I will conclude by reminding you about the ways I showed you to set up a working outline."
Right Way: "It's the time of year when teachers start handing out essay and term paper assignments. To help organize the information obtained in the research material before writing those papers, begin with this easy working outline process."
The Key Points
There may be only 3 key points in the case of essays or more than three for term papers. The number of key points doesn't matter. The only thing that counts is that each key point gets its own Roman numeral in the working outline, with its own supporting evidence and additional details. The key points will become either a single essay paragraph or a separate section of the term paper, which can be listed under a sub-heading that reflects the key point's intent.
Conclusion: The Rough Draft
Much of the information used to create the introduction will be used to write the conclusion. As with the introduction, don't point out to the reader (teacher) what you told them. When writing this rough, rough draft of the conclusion, reflect on how the topic or purpose of the paper developed through the writing process, until it arrived at this conclusion.
Working Outline: Read Through
Once the working outline is completed, set it aside and let rest for an hour, a day or a few days - whatever you have time for. Then come back to it and read through it. Does it flow well? Does it need tweaking or re-arranging? Does it need quotes? Does it need citations? Does it need a bit more research somewhere? Does some piece of information not belong?
If the teacher wants to see an outline before writing begins, then you have one ready to show. The teacher may point out what's good about the working outline and where it needs work before writing. Take this as objective criticism (a critique aimed at making the final written essay or term paper a better finished product). If the teacher doesn't demand a copy of the working outline, then simply use it to begin the writing process.
Remember that the working outline set up is not written in stone, it doesn't have to be followed exactly. Working outlines are simply tools to help organize the research materials, to point out potential problems, and to maintain a balance between too much and not enough information. Most of all, they bridge the gap between the research process and the writing process.