What is an Outline?

An outline can be anything that organizes the main points of your writing.  They can look like neatly organized templates, scribbles on a sheet of notebook paper, mind maps, or notecards on a coffee table.  Chances are, if you’re organizing your thoughts before you write, you’ve experience the process of outlining.

The Classic Outline Format

I love the classic outline.  I used it.  It’s awesome. The reason this format is still used today is because it is extremely effective at combining titles, subtitles, and brief bulleted points to keep you on track.  Not only is this outline format great for writing, but I used to use them to memorize specific items for tests.

Clicking link will download the Classic Outline to your Desktop: Classic Outline (courtesy of Microsoft Office)

Modern Outline Formats

With the rise  of technology, outlining and organizing have changed dramatically.  New programs like Evernote allow you to “grab” clips from the web and organize them into folder – making research quicker and easier.  Programs like Feedly allow you to target specific subjects and web sites for even faster research.  Once I have collected all the information I need to write my paper, I generally start by using software to organize everything.

How to Build an Effective Outline

The best ingredient for great writing is: time.  But time is hard to come by in our world, especially if you are a college student.  If you are going to take the time to build an outline, let’s make sure it’s going to be time well spent!

Make a List

Most college students are given a subject to write about.  Take 5-10 minutes and write down everything that comes to mind about the topic.  There are no rules.  You can list names, phrases, etc.  The goal is to get everything out of your head and onto your canvas.

Organize Your Thoughts

Take a look over your list and circle or highlight what you think should be the main points of the paper.  Underline any points that go to support your main points.  Throughout this process new ideas may pop into your mind.  Feel free to add them to your list and then circle or underline them.

Add Content

Take a look at the words you circled or highlighted.  What is the one thing that they have in common?  Write a couple of sentences that contain the main point of your paper.  You can use this sentence to begin building your thesis.

Decide How to Organize Your Points

This is the place where you will begin building an outline.  Outlines are perfect for organizing your points.  There are lots of ways to organize your paper, but I find that the easiest way is to move from general points to more specific points.  Then, follow your specific points with arguments or evidence to support your points.  If you need help with this, see my article called the Cone Shaped Writing Method.

Be Concise

In order to meet word count requirements, some students fill their papers with musings and opinions that don’t add much to the paper.  A better approach is to layout another argument or provide more evidence if you need to make your paper longer.  As you build your outline, it’s a good idea to ask yourself how you can tighten up your writing by moving paragraphs around.  The best place for opinions, if at all, tend to be toward the end of the paper or in the conclusion.

One Final Thought

Even a superficial, quickly constructed outline is better than no outline.  I know that it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and rushed when writing a paper.  Too often, student cheat themselves out of the rich experience of creating a paper that is uniquely their own because they haven’t left enough time to create.  However, writing can be something you learn to like…dare I say love!?  When I was learning the guitar in high school, my guitar teacher told me, “When you’re sitting alone in your room practicing, don’t be sloppy, and don’t try to rush through practice.  Instead, imagine that your sitting on a stage and performing for an audience – give your best when you practice and that’s how you learn to be great!”

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