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How to Write an Essay Outline for University or College
Writing an essay can take days or even weeks to do, so most students don’t want to take the extra step of creating an outline.
However, an outline is a very important component of any research paper because it serves as a blueprint for your assignment and a constant reference for your thesis and arguments. Having an outline will actually make your job much easier when writing a paper. You’ll have all of the major components of your essay in the same place, so you don’t need to search through your notes to find them.
Many professors ask students to submit an essay outline for marks. Before you do, you should understand the difference between an essay outline and an essay proposal. An outline is typically longer than a proposal and contains a framework for your entire paper—including your thesis, main arguments, and conclusion—whereas a proposal usually only contains a framework for your thesis. Often, professors will ask students to submit a proposal before they begin an outline to have their thesis approved.
Even though a proposal or outline may be worth less marks than an actual essay, you should put enough time and care into crafting them. The more time you spend on the outline, the less time you’ll have to spend writing the essay. Creating an essay outline is one of the most important tips for writing a research paper quickly and easily. Plus, it’s always a good idea to have your professor or teaching assistant give you feedback on your ideas before you actually begin writing. Otherwise, you may discover halfway through the essay that your ideas don’t really hold water.
This guide assumes that you have already chosen a topic for your paper. The topic is, of course, the most important component of your essay since it determines the paper’s overall quality. If you choose a topic that is too narrow, it will be difficult to find enough evidence to fill out your paper. And if your paper topic is too broad, you may become so overwhelmed with the available evidence that the essay-writing process becomes very difficult.
Setting up the outline
First, take a few minutes to set up an essay outline in Word. All you need is a new Word document with three headings: Thesis, Sub-Arguments, and Sources. Make sure you include lots of space underneath each heading as you’ll be filling in the details as you work through these steps.
Step One: Do preliminary research
Doing research before you write your outline may seem like putting the chicken before the egg. After all, how can you do research if you don’t even have a thesis yet? But believe it or not, doing research is actually the best way to discover your thesis statement.
When doing preliminary reading, you should try to focus on the main scholars in the field you are writing. This is easy to do using an online library catalogue or Google Books, but the most effective tool at this stage is Google Scholar. Google Scholar will provide examples of both books and scholarly articles on your topic. All you need to do is type in a keyword at the top of the search engine and enjoy the results. I recommend paying attention to the “cited by” link under each result since it tells you a lot about an author’s influence. If a particular book or article has been cited hundreds of times by other scholars, then you know they’re particularly influential in their field. These are the scholars you want to focus on since they’re the most authoritative.
When using Google Scholar, you should also pay attention to when each book or article was written. Typically, professors suggest using sources that are no more than twenty years old. That means you should be focusing your efforts on sources that were written in the 1990s and onwards. If your topic is not well-studied, you may find it’s necessary to consult older sources, but beware of scholarship written before the 1960s.
Of course, primary sources are another matter since they are often written well before the modern period. If you are writing a history essay, be sure to create separate lists for primary and secondary sources at this stage. The good news is that many digitized books before the twentieth century are available for free in PDF format via Google Books. If you can take advantage of these, it will make your search for sources much easier because they’re so easily accessible.
Once you have a preliminary list of books and articles on your topics, take some time to peruse through them. And while you’re reading, keep a list of notes on each source. You don’t need to do pages and pages of writing at this stage. Really, there are a few major things you should be looking for in each source, including:
-the major themes and topics
-the ways in which different authors interact
-the evidence they use
-the arguments they make
-any topics that are incomplete, incoherent, or controversial
As I said before, reading books and articles on your topic is the best and most efficient way to develop your thesis and arguments. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed at this stage, but the good news is that it’s not necessary to read each article and book in full. I’d suggest dedicating around 1-2 hours to preliminary reading for a short 5-page essay. If you take good notes and pay attention to the scholars you’re reading, you should have plenty to work with at the end of this time.
Step Two: Create a research question
Now that you’ve familiarized yourself with a topic, it’s time to come up with a research question. The research question is the query you will address throughout your essay. In essence, your thesis is the answer to this question, so as you can see, it’s important to come up with the research question before you begin crafting your thesis.
Your first task is to carefully review the notes you made in Step One. At this point, it should be clear that there are interesting or unanswered questions you might ask about your field. Pick a question that speaks to you and that you can feasibly answer in your essay. I say “feasibly” because you won’t be able to answer big, open-ended questions in a short research paper.
Another rule is to make sure your question is analytical. The answer to your question (ie. the thesis statement) should not be a factual statement that is too obvious or well-known. For example, the research question “When was World War II?” is inappropriate since the answer (“World War II was from 1939-1945") is already considered common knowledge. The research question and thesis should reflect your critical thinking on a topic. It should be challenging and insightful, not boring and bland.
Step Three: Write your thesis and main arguments
As you already know, the thesis is the main argument of your research paper. All of your evidence, source material, and sub-arguments stem from your thesis, making it an incredibly important part of any essay. That’s why it’s essential that you create a well-crafted thesis from the get-go. Many students think a thesis is just a collection of ideas strung together with a few key words. But a good thesis is strong and precise; it outlines your major arguments without providing any unnecessary tangents.
If this sounds too complicated, not to worry. Writing a thesis is actually very easy if you follow a basic formula. The first step to writing a good thesis is realizing that a thesis is, in essence, an argument. The thesis is not a summary of your essay, nor is it a description of your topic. To make sure your thesis is argumentative, include operative verbs like “argue” or “demonstrate” in your thesis statement.
As an example, the statement “This paper looks at the fall of the Roman Empire” is not a thesis. This statement is more indicative of the scope of your paper. From it, I can discern that the paper will focus on the Roman Empire and its eventual fall.
However, I have no clue why the Empire fell, nor any indication of the sources the student will be using.
This is where the persuasive thesis statement comes into play. A thesis statement should do more than introduce the reader to the Roman Empire: it must present the student’s viewpoint on a specific topic.
To make sure your thesis is analytical enough, use words that indicate your paper will be telling the reader something.
So, for example:
“This paper argues that….”
“This paper demonstrates that…”
“This paper shows that…”
Statements to avoid:
“This paper looks at…” (too descriptive)
“This paper describes…” (too descriptive)
“This paper talks about…” (too descriptive)
Once the first clause of your thesis is complete, you can fill in the next part of the statement.
“This paper argues that the fall of the Roman Empire was caused by….”
This is the part where thesis-writing gets tricky. You need to list your main arguments in a way that sounds natural, not simply tacked onto your thesis statement. You may need to write several drafts of your statement before it sounds complete. This is fine since it will save you time later when writing your introduction.
“This paper argues that the fall of the Roman Empire was caused by the invasion of barbarians from Northern Europe, the dwindling political powers of the Roman Emperors, and the spread of Christianity.”
Notice that this statement is simple and straightforward. There are no unnecessary colons, semi-colons, commas, or periods. Conventional wisdom dictates that a thesis has to be long and wordy, but such statements are usually far less effective than a simpler iteration of your arguments. You may, of course, separate your thesis into two of three statements, particularly if your research paper will be longer than ten pages. However, your thesis statement should never be longer than a few sentences. Don’t make the mistake of using an entire paragraph to write your thesis, unless you’ve been instructed to do so by a professor.
The next section of your essay outline focuses on your main arguments. Now that you’ve done your thesis, you should already know what your arguments are. Most standard 8-10 page papers should have 3 sub-arguments, but this can differ depending on the length of the paper (and your teacher’s instructions).
Remember that each of your arguments must support your thesis. A good way to check the strength of your arguments is to rewrite your thesis statement three times, with each argument serving as the second clause. So, for example:
1) This paper argues that the fall of the Roman Empire was caused by the invasion of barbarians from Northern Europe.
2) This paper argues that the fall of the Roman Empire was caused by the dwindling political powers of the Roman Emperors.
3) This paper argues that the fall of the Roman Empire was caused by the spread of Christianity.
In the example above, I’ve finished the statement “This paper argues that the fall of the Roman Empire was caused by…” with each of the sub-arguments to check whether each argument supports the thesis. In this case, they do, but if they didn’t then I might have to restructure them so they’re more analytical.
Once you’ve decided on your arguments, you should add a little more detail to the outline. For each argument, list 3-5 pieces of evidence you will use to support it. This doesn’t need be very lengthy—I’d suggest making a short point-form list. But doing this step will make you feel more confident when you begin writing your paper.
That's it! You're done the essay outline
At this point you will have a full essay outline, complete with thesis, arguments, supporting evidence, and a list of sources. Do a final read-over and check for any typos or inaccuracies. Then make sure you keep your outline somewhere safe! When you’re writing your essay, your outline will be an exceptionally valuable resource.