Before you start outlining we suggest that you free-write on the assignment for a good amount of time. This will help you clarify what you are going to write about and what sort of material you need to make the kind of critical argument that you want to make. After you have read and understood the assignment look at your notes and try to form an idea of what your thesis and argument will be. After you have some writing done it is time to organize your thinking and an outline can help you do that.

Why and how to create a useful outline

Why create an outline?
  • It can help you organize your ideas.
  • It helps you present your material in a logical form.
  • It can help you shows the relationships among ideas in your writing and help you keep track of these as you are writing.
  • It helps you constructs an ordered overview of your writing that can potentially help you stay on track in your writing process and prevent your ideas from being jumbled in the final product.
  • It can help you define boundaries and groups within your paper.
How do I create an outline?
  • First determine the purpose of your paper - i.e. Read and understand the assignment.
  • Determine the audience you are writing for - your professor, naturally - but could also be your peers or the readership of a journal that you might submit your paper to.
  • Develop the thesis of your paper. Start out free-writing on your topic - this will help you clarify you thoughts and ideas. Then create a thesis statement. After you have developed a thesis statement you can start a serious outline.
  • Brainstorm: List all the ideas that you want to include in your paper. Here your free writing comes in helpful again. After you have decided on your thesis statement you can organize the other ideas from the free writing and use them in your outline.
  • Organize: Group related ideas together.
  • Order: Arrange material in subsections from general to specific or from abstract to concrete.
  • Label: Create main and sub headings.

Remember: creating an outline before writing your paper will make organizing your thoughts a lot easier. Whether you follow the suggested guidelines is up to you, but making any kind of outline (even just some jotting down some main ideas) will be beneficial to your writing process.

Reverse use of outline

When you are done writing your paper, you will want to let it sit; at least overnight. This will create some distance between you and your own words and allow you to look at your writing with fresher eyes. Once you have read it over once, go back to your outline and make sure that you are doing what you set out to do.

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