Jamison Huebsch, Consultant
Outline is an unusual word in the world of writing; in normal usage it suggests a lack of substance, a mere shape of something larger. We use the word because it is supposed to represent the shape of things to come in our work. Yet in the process of writing an outline can sometimes feel limiting, because it can be a commitment to a direction for an essay or story. An outline can be a big help in the early planning stages of writing however, and I would like to share a few tips I’ve picked up on creating an outline. The first tip is not to stress out about an outline, because it is supposed to be a helpful map and not a constraint.
Imagine it like this: you are deep in the middle of a paragraph, and have put your best ideas down on the paper but you still feel like it’s a bit of a mess. Where do you go next? Pull out your trusty outline you made earlier and let it guide you. You can review the important concepts you wanted to cover, see what the next topic you planned to discuss, and then you are right back on track without any wandering about. The key is what you include in your outline, to give yourself guidance later.
Let’s start with two important parts of the introduction: the audience information, and the thesis. Your introduction is usually the best place to clue your reader into information they may not know but is important to your topic. You should note down anything you feel you might have to explain such as technical information, acronyms, or concepts. In creative works you might consider a character’s back-story or important information about where the story takes place. Not everything you write down in the outline has to be used later. If you writing a creative work you may not need a thesis either, but it is still a good place to record your original plan for the plot. If you producing other academic work however, you will definitely want a thesis. There is lots of help available on making a good thesis, including on the Purdue OWL, but as long as it summarizes the central point of your paper well you are on good ground.
The next section is sometimes referred to as the body, but I like to think of it more like a skeleton. You want to get the central ideas of your work sectioned out, and then you can break them down into smaller easier to plan steps. So pick major concepts and give each one its own section. In a creative work you might list the scenes you plan to write, so you can get a feel for the shape and flow of the plot. In a class paper you could review the major topics or issues related to your argument. If you have already done your research for the paper, an outline can help you space out your citations and ensure that you cover everything important before moving on to the next source. You want the sections to follow each other in an order that makes sense, so by looking at it in the large scale abstract you can better see where you might need transitions added to your text.
When you have covered all your main points and noted all the important details to your paper it’s time for an ending. Regardless of if you call it a conclusion or an epilogue, a good work leaves it reader with a proper send off. This is your last chance as a writer to leave a good impression on your reader. Luckily a conclusion in an academic paper is like a mirror of the introduction: you review the important points of your argument briefly, and similar to your earlier thesis it should contain a clear and concise statement of your position. Creative writers are still stuck crafting sappy endings or killing off everyone’s favorite characters, but that’s the job you signed up for. Either way you’ll know by now if you followed your earlier road map or set off into the unknown, but at least you brought directions.
I hope these few short tips about outlines help someone out, and don’t forget that you can come by the Writing Center. We not only can help you with brainstorming and planning your first outline, but with all the fun stuff that comes after. Good luck with your writing!