How to Write an Essay Outline
Outlines are important parts of every writing process. When a given idea comes to your mind, you should write it down immediately in order to remember it. Unfortunately, students very often have good ideas and insights but do not know how to organize them. The worst thing that you can do is merely to postpone writing the idea on paper. Another important contribution of outlines is the fact that they allow you to conceive your essay in its wholeness, as one inseparable piece of text. Thus, you can easily understand where the flaws of your way of argumentation are.
The present guide will help you understand the process of writing an essay outline. What should you do, when and how?
How to write an essay outline – 7 essential tips
An outline is a piece of text which reflects the main ideas of your essay or any kind of written work. Outlines bring all important ideas together and reflect the structure of your future essay. Remember: the outline is never identical with the essay itself. Your outline needs to be short, focused precisely on the most important points of your paper (thesis, arguments, counter-arguments, etc.).
Besides, there are two types of outlines: formal and non-formal. The formal ones have to be submitted to an instructor, a publishing house, a journal, and so forth; thus, they must correspond to the requirements of the particular institution. Non-formal outlines are only meant for your personal use, so they can be formatted as you like it. Here you will get familiar with the formal type.
In order to write a good outline you should consider carefully the topic of your essay. Probably your instructor or teacher will assign you a topic, but if this is not the case, you must do it yourself. Try to pick up a topic which is known to you (not something entirely different from your interests and knowledge), and formulate it precisely. The topic should not be too abstract or too particular. A topic like “American War of Independence” is very abstract; it is not clear what you want to examine here, thus the reader will be confused. But a topic like “Political dimensions of the American War of Independence” is clearer, and at the same time it leaves some freedom for your thought.
If your understanding of the problem is not very clear, or if there are many directions which you can take, it is better to write on paper everything which is in your mind at the moment. Write the title of the essay and start thinking about the aforementioned political dimensions. The following comprises some examples of words which are associated with the title:
- British monarchy/king
Once you have brainstormed, it will be clearer for you what exactly to put stress on. The words “independence,” “freedom” and “democracy” are fundamental, so you can use them as key words.
4. Initial research
Now it is the right time for starting your academic research - even if you are a high school student you must conduct thorough research. You cannot merely write on the topic without having the necessary information, which includes facts, data, references and quotations. Your research starts with formulating the scope of your work, authors whom you can refer to, data or statistics necessary for proving your thesis.
An easy way to start is to search on the internet encyclopedias, in this case - history. There you can find references to books or articles. You can find the given book or article (in the library or online), and there must be references to other, different resources. Still, you should save time, thus it is better to focus your efforts directly on the topic - search for the most renowned books and well-proven theses.
Remember: now you only need to gather information to elaborate the outline. Once the outline is finished, you can search for more resources (more proof, arguments, data, etc.). Save time!
5. Draft of the outline
After you have gathered the necessary information you should continue with writing the outline. You should have formed a clear conception of your essay - its scope, context, thesis, main arguments, primary sources, etc. It is better to have this draft on your computer (in electronic form).
SAMPLE ESSAY OUTLINE
-Title: “Political dimensions of the American War of Independence.”
-Key words: independence, freedom, democracy
1. Introduction (2-3 paragraphs)
1.1 Context: Scholars often discuss the roots of American democracy. When did democracy appear in America? What were the causes of this process?
1.2 Thesis: American War of Independence was crucial for establishing the United States of America as a separate political entity based upon the principles of democracy. The awareness of American identity was strengthened during the war.
2. Main part
2.1 The conception of democracy: definition (here you need to explain what is democracy according to the widely accepted understanding).
2.2 Causes of the War of Independence:
-economic (some facts about the economic problems in the 1760s)
-political (the pressure exercised by the British monarchy).
2.3 Establishing of the political structure of the future political entity:
-Philadelphia Congress (facts).
-The first state constitutions (the main points emphasized by those constitutions).
-The Constitution of the United States (what is new and valuable in it).
2.4 Political consequences of the War of Independence:
-the emergence of the United States of America as an independent state conducting its own international policy.
-Influence in Europe (the French Revolution, European constitutions).
3. Conclusion (here you can recapitulate your thesis and explain that political, economic and social causes are interconnected but you have analyzed only the political ones).
List of references
It is obligatory to have a List of references (bibliography) attached to your essay. Many students first write their essay and then insert some quotations only to meet this requirement. This is not very smart; actually, you should gather the necessary quotations before writing the essay (instead of merely inserting them later). We also advise you to make your own List of references as early as you start your initial research. Format it according to your instructor’s criteria (ask him/her about it) and adhere to the same formatting all the time - this will save you a lot of time. The number of titles depends on your level of study - an essay for a college level should contain at least ten titles.
Put your bibliography on a separate page. Title it “Works cited” and then present the titles in alphabetical order of the author’s surnames.
Here is an example of formatting your bibliography according to the requirements of MLA style:
Jayne, Allen. Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence: Origins, Philosophy, and Theology. The University Press of Kentucky, 1998.
And here is APA style:
Jayne, A. (1998). Jefferson’s Declaration of independence: Origins, philosophy, and theology. The University Press of Kentucky.
7. When the outline is finished?
An outline is ready once you have formulated your thesis and possess appropriate arguments in its favor. Afterwards any change or modification could have negative impact. Therefore, calculate your time accurately and do not hurry up: it is better to have less time for writing the essay itself than to have an essay with chaotic structure and vague thesis.
Do not underestimate your task - writing outlines is not wasting your time. Organize your ideas carefully upon preliminary research - then your outline will be an excellent starting point.
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