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How to Write a Good Outline for an Academic Paper

April 29, 2021| Category: Writing Tips

Before you start working on any academic paper, you will need to think about the structure you will follow. Thorough planning is the most challenging part of the writing process that should help the writer choose the direction to move. Without having a good plan, you will probably jump from one idea to another, which will confuse your reader.

If you want to develop your essay in a logical order, you will need to create an outline and stick to it when writing your paper. Believe it or not, but a good outline will greatly save your time spent on the writing process. Having an outline, you will find it easier to rearrange your ideas when it is necessary. As such, it is impossible to underestimate the importance of a well-written outline. If you are lacking sufficient outline writing skills, then our guide will be particularly helpful for you. It contains a lot of helpful tips and suggestions that will enable you to write a high-quality outline for any paper.

Outline Writing Basics

         What is an outline?

An outline is a short plan of a paper that will guide you when you will be working on your assignment. An outline should provide the reader with a brief overview of what is the paper about. Sometimes, professors assign an outline as a separate task, as it is a good way to check the student’s interpretive and analytical skills. However, in the vast majority of cases, an outline should just help the student structure his or her thoughts, ideas, and arguments by organizing them in the right order.

         What is a purpose of an outline?

Whether you are writing a narrative essay, argumentative essay, process essay, compare and contrast essay, or any other academic paper, you will need to write an outline. It will help you organize the writing process properly. In particular, it is reasonable to write an outline due to the following reasons:

  • Structure. Being written properly, an outline will enable you to follow the traditional structure, ensuring the coherent flow of your ideas;
  • Focus. An outline will help you make your essay focused and thesis-driven;
  • Feedback. If you submit an outline before writing your paper, you will receive the professor’s feedback that will help you find out if you have chosen the right direction. Consequently, it will enable you to avoid major revisions;
  • Requirement. In some cases, writing an outline is a part of the task that requires thorough planning.

    What are the major parts of an outline?

Regardless of the type of outline, it should include the following elements:

  • Main idea/thesis statement. A thesis statement is a central claim you are making in your paper that defines the flow of the whole document. Typically, you should write the main idea at the end of the introduction and it should take only one-two sentences;
  • Supporting points. When you are writing a traditional 5-paragraph essay, you will need to include three supporting points that will be discussed in three separate paragraphs. It is a must to support all of these points with solid evidence;
  • In this part of an outline, you will need to inform your reader about the way you are going to finalize your essay. As such, you will need to restate the message you are communicating in a clear way. Again, the way you write your conclusion greatly depends on the nature of your paper. In a simple five-paragraph essay, it will be shorter, whereas a lengthy research paper requires including a more detailed concluding part.

    How long should an outline be?

There is no clear answer to this question, as the length of the outline is dependent on many factors. First, it depends on the paper type you are supposed to write. If you are writing an outline for a simple essay, just a couple of points will be enough.

However, if you need to write an outline for a lengthy research paper, you will need to make it extended, elaborating on the most important points. It can take up to 2 pages for you to write an extended outline. Although it may take a considerable amount of time to write an extended outline, you should understand that it will become a particularly helpful instrument for organizing the writing process.

          When should I write an outline?

There is no specific time when you need to start working on an outline. Nevertheless, if you want to be able to write your paper well, you will need to start early. Ideally, you need to start working on your task once you receive it. If you want to write a perfect outline, you will need to write it right after making research before you start working on the paper. This time is the most appropriate because it allows you to use all of your research findings and pick up the most credible data as a basis of your work. In such a way, you will have appropriate understanding of the topic you are working on. Thus, you will find the most important aspects that will be uncovered in your paper.

          Can I change my outline?

Of course, you can do it. You should understand that your outline aims to make the writing process easier instead of making it more complicated. Therefore, if you feel that you are lacking appropriate information to develop it in your paper, you may fix this point in your outline. Pay attention that you can alter your outline on any of the stages of the writing process unless it is already submitted.

Common Types of Outlines

You should know that there are two main types of an outline – a topic and a sentence outline. If you format your outline with numbering, you will receive an alphanumeric outline. Let us discuss each outline type in detail.

Topic Outline

Thesis statement: Schools should be opened and in-person teaching should be allowed once again.

Supporting idea 1: Mass vaccination has been started.

Supporting idea 2: In-person learning is much more effective: main benefits of in-person learning;

Supporting idea 3: Many precautions were taken for safety insurance.

Conclusion: All schools should re-open for in-person education as it is very important.

Sentence Outline

When working on a sentence outline, you will need to follow the same flow as in the outline provided above, but you will need to make sure that each heading is a full sentence that clearly explains what you want to say. For instance:

Main idea: Schools should be opened and in-person teaching should be allowed once again.

Supporting idea 1: After a long pause, it is high time for schools to re-open as the mass vaccination has begun, which makes it safer for everyone to go to school;

Supporting idea 2: Studies prove that in-person teaching is much more effective than online teaching. Thus, if schools reopen, students will be able to obtain new skills and competencies necessary for their intellectual growth;

Supporting idea 3: Now, when we are informed about how Covid-19 is spread, schools can take all the precautions needed to make sure the environment is maximally safe for students.

Conclusion: Returning to the in-person form of education is totally safe, and students should come back to their schools again.

If you have sufficient evidence for all the sub-topics under every supporting idea, then you will need to add numbering to your outline, as it will allow you to keep it neater and easy to follow.

What Kind of Outline to Choose

If you are not sure which type of outline to use, you will need to have a look at your assignment. When you need to write a simple 500-word essay, a brief topic outline will do. However, if you are working on a longer academic essay, we strongly recommend you use a full-sentence outline that will enable you to navigate through your arguments and evidence easily.

How to Write a Worthy Outline: A Step-by-Step Guide

Before you start working on your outline, you will need to understand the purpose of your work. In particular, you will need to pay attention to the following:

  • Which task are you performing (analyzing, evaluating, discussing, comparing and contrasting)?
  • What is the topic of your essay?
  • What is a thesis statement?
  • Who is your target audience?

We assure you that by having this information, you will be able to choose the appropriate strategy for writing your outline. Before you start working on the plan for your paper, you will need to make sure all the points the professor provided are clear.

Then, you will need to select an order that will help you choose the right structure of your outline. For instance, you may organize the main points in your paper spatially, chronologically, or in accordance with their importance.

Spatial order is used when it is necessary to help the reader visualize your subject. Therefore, writers choose this outline type while working on narrative and descriptive essays.

Chronological order is appropriate when you are writing a story. As such, it works best for narrative and expository essays.

If you want to organize the main points in your outline based on their importance, you will need to put the most significant aspects at the very beginning. Afterwards, you will need to present less significant aspects. Such an outline type is appropriate when writing argumentative or persuasive essays as well as different types of speeches.

Choose the Right Structure of Your Outline

If you are writing an outline for a standard five-paragraph essay, it will be written as follows:

Main idea. The central argument that you will prove in the paper.

Supporting idea 1. The first point proving that your argument is correct;

Supporting idea 2. The second point proving that your argument is correct;

Supporting idea 3. The third point proving that your argument is correct;

Conclusion. Restate your central idea once again and explain why it is correct.

When you are writing an outline for a lengthy paper, its structure may be as follows:

Topic. The subject of your essay;

Thesis statement: A central idea of the essay that you will develop throughout the whole text;

Supporting idea 1. What is the first point that justifies your central claim?

Evidence for supporting idea 1. How does the evidence back up your supporting idea 1?

Supporting idea 2. What is the second point that justifies your central claim?

Evidence for supporting idea 2. How does the evidence back up your supporting idea 2?

Supporting idea 3. What is the third point that justifies your central claim?

Evidence for supporting idea 3. How does the evidence back up your supporting idea 3?

Conclusion. Re-state your thesis statement and summarize the main points introduced in your outline.

Outline Writing Checklist

If you want to make sure your outline is written well, you will need to answer the following questions once you are done with writing your outline:

  • Does my outline contain all the necessary elements (central idea, supporting claims, conclusion)?
  • Are all of my supporting points related to the central idea?
  • Does my evidence make sense?
  • Is my outline structured and formatted in accordance with the latest writing conventions?

All in all, we want to stress that an outline is not something that will make your life more difficult. On the contrary, being written well, it will significantly economize your time and efforts spent on the writing process. Just make it maximally clear and well-organized and you will be able to create an unmatched paper that will fully comply with your plan.