In most every high school or college class, you’ll be asked to write an essay. But starting a paper can be difficult. You might not know what you want to argue, or you might not know how to support your argument. It becomes even more difficult if you write sentence by sentence, because you don’t know what direction your paper is going.
An outline is a great way for you to organize your thoughts before you start writing a paper. It keeps your essay fluid and focused, and helps you decide your main argument, your supporting evidence, and your analysis in a simple structure. Writing an outline will make your essay-writing process smoother and stress-free, and it will give you material to reference if you get writer’s block.
Follow the following structure on how to write an outline for an essay
II. Topic Sentence 1
III. Topic Sentence 2
IV. Topic Sentence 3
Paragraphs 2-4 are considered "body paragraphs."
1. Assemble your evidence
Your paper will be much easier to write if you've been collecting evidence, such as quotes from primary sources, statistics, and critical commentary. After you've done your reading and research, collect the evidence that is most relevant to your main argument. Organize the evidence into three or four main points–more if it's a long paper! These three or four points will become your sub-points or body paragraphs: the arguments that support your thesis.
Tip: Put all your evidence on Post-it Notes. As you're arranging and rearranging the notes, it'll help you easily figure out what evidence belongs together and what doesn't.
2. Write your thesis
Hopefully, after you've done all your research and collected all your evidence, an argument will start to form. Maybe it is something you repeatedly noticed throughout the book you read, or maybe it's opinion you have after reading commentary on your topic. Either way, your paper needs to have an argument behind it, and a thesis is how you define your argument to the world.
If writing your essay is like building a house, your thesis is the foundation. It needs to be strong, and it needs to give enough substance to let you keep writing and developing off of it. A good thesis will be succinct, written in active voice, saying who is doing what, and use a strong verb.
3. Write your topic sentences
The topic sentences are the supporting claims of your thesis. Remember those three or four groups of evidence you have? The topic sentence is a way of summarizing the argument that evidence supports. They elaborate on a point you mention in your thesis, and draw on your evidence and analysis to create an argument. Like your thesis, your topic sentence should also be an argument and be a full sentence. You'll prove the topic sentence throughout the course of your paragraph.
4. Insert your evidence and analysis
The first part is easy: take the evidence you assembled, and put it in your outline. The next part is trickier, it's where you analyze and discuss the evidence. It may be tempting to just leave the evidence in as proof of your point, but this is your essay. If the reader doesn't hear your voice and commentary, they're not going to think it's your argument. How much analysis you want to include in your outline is up to you; you may want to write a few words about what you're planning on saying, or you may want to write out your commentary in full sentences.
5. Start thinking about your introduction and conclusion.
Because your introduction and conclusion are not really places for evidence, you don't have to include too much about them in your outline. It helps to start thinking about what sort of introduction you want to have, how you'll set up your paper and introduce your topic. You can also start thinking about how you want to end your paper, what kind of impression do you want to leave your reader?
Hopefully, after writing your outline, you'll feel your paper start to come together. There may be some frustrating points where you feel like you don't have enough evidence or your argument doesn't make sense, but remember that is all part of the writing process.
Micaela Deitch is a sophomore at Georgetown University. She works for OpenSesame, where she enjoys learning about education and eLearning.