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How to Write an Outline

Written by tutor Barron T.

The first step in writing your essay outline isn’t something that is specific to writing, or essays. The thing you have to bring to the table, above all else, is Energy. Using this Energy to raise your focus and your concentration is essential. Imagine the feeling you get when stepping onto the stage, or into the batter’s box. These are similar situations because they are critical moments, requiring that you go all out in order to succeed. Success when writing is no different. You must be ready to hustle, both mentally and physically - seriously, it is time to write fast! Training yourself to think and write quickly without sacrificing quality of work will give you the tools you need to tackle any essay assignment. Once you have the correct mindset, it is time to grab a pen and paper and get ready for the next step.

What are you writing about? Simple question right, probably a set topic or idea, whether from a teacher or a standardized test. The question is simple, but the answer is important. Every good essay is constructed around “A Big Idea”. You probably know this already, and may have been calling it a thesis. Building a strong thesis is vital. Take a look at a sample question.

Industrial development has contributed to harmful pollution around the world, this is known. Should developing nations be restricted from industrializing in a similar fashion?

For a question like this, there is no right answer. You could argue yes, or no, or even a half and half argument. Typically, unless you are familiar with the ins and outs of a topic, I suggest picking a single side of an issue on a question like this. Pick a side, and come out strongly for it - remember, energy! A simple thesis might look like this:

No nation, at any time, or in any way, should be barred from the ability to industrialize, if they so choose.

I want you to note three things. First, it is a broad idea that can apply to many situations. Second, though it is a big idea, it is a relatively short and simple sentence. Third, it directly addresses the question. Once you think of a big idea that meets these three requirements, it is time to begin writing your outline.

The first section of the actual outline is your introduction, and the main point of an introduction is to express the basic big idea. So, under the intro heading, write the thesis you have come up with. Now, an introductory paragraph should be relatively short, so if you are in a rush, for instance during a timed test, you may write your thesis here and nothing else. However, given the time, it is a good idea to include some relevant background information, in order to give your thesis more context. Lastly, an idea or ideas for transitioning from the intro to the first body paragraph completes the beginning of the outline.

From the opening paragraph, it is time to flow into the arguments that support your stance. The body of your essay, between the introduction and conclusion, must lay out the ideas that support your thesis. Your Big Idea is broad, like an umbrella, and these supporting arguments are like the people that fit under that umbrella. These ideas should address some specific aspect of your thesis, and they will each form the basis for one of your body paragraphs. In a way, they are like mini-theses, each the main idea of one paragraph.

So, below the outline introduction, start a body paragraph section, with one of your main supporting ideas. For our example, something like this:

Despite some negative consequences, the effects of industrialization on human health and safety are so significant that the process should not be halted.

Two things I want you to notice - the idea directly addresses the thesis statement, but also that the idea is not over specific. It leaves room for detailed examples, coming later in the paragraph, to back up the claim. Good detail at this stage can make or break your essay, so think of at least two or three good examples to jot below your support idea. For the example above, you might reference life expectancy statistics, or the use of vaccines to cure polio, or even the development of indoor plumbing and wastewater treatment. The key is to have several detailed examples that support your paragraph’s main idea. Don’t worry about perfect grammar or specific sentence construction here, just get the pertinent information into your outline. At this point, it is time to reload and repeat the process, for however many strong supporting arguments you have. For standardized test takers in particular, think about drawing from history and literature for the finer details to support your arguments.

After completing several body paragraph outlines in this fashion, it is time to wrap the outline and get ready for the essay writing. Here again, transitions are important, so begin your conclusion outline section with some notion of how you want to get from your final body paragraph to the conclusion. Then, after having introduced and then defended your thesis, you will want to state it one more time. However, make it a different version of the thesis statement in the intro, same idea, different wording. If possible, this is the time to finish with a real bang, to leave your last words ringing in the reader’s ear, so if you think of something snappy, memorable, or even funny, finish your outline with it. Now it is time to take that outline and turn it into an essay, and as you do so, remember, bring some oomph to the table!

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