In case you hadn’t guessed by my blog, or my English major, or my intention to do a 25-page senior thesis – I kinda like writing. It’s something that comes naturally to me, and makes sense even on the worst days. And that’s lucky, because as an English major, I’m writing All. The. Time. But I know not everyone feels the same way, so instead I’ve decided to show you my process under the hood: this is the essay outline template I use to write my best papers ever.
This is an extensive guide, but some parts might apply more for your paper than others. Use the headings and bolded bits as guides, take what you need, and get to writing.
Outline to Write the Best. Essay. Ever.
I’ve actually developed a system: a one-document, step-by-step process that allows me to write a killer essay in a lot less time. And, since I adore you guys, I’m giving the template away. If you’re already a subscriber, head to the Resource Library to snag your copy. If not, sign up below, and I’ll email you the password right away:
Start With The Rubric
If your instructor is worth their salt, they’ll have given you some sort of assignment sheet. It should list all the paper requirements: formatting, content, sources, and due dates. This is your Bible now, so keep a close eye on it, and snap a picture on your phone camera, in case it gets lost.
From the rubric, open up that doc you downloaded – there should be a space at the top for assignment information. Format the document to your professor’s specifications, and then add in your requirements.
Having your paper requirements in the same window while you write is a godsend. They’re right there for ready reference, and you can delete items as you complete them, so you know exactly what you have left to do.
Do Your Research
This part can be a nightmare for research papers, but it’s best to do your research while you have a vague idea of what you want to write about, and refine your thesis based on what you learn. No matter how you do your research, the outline is structured around these points. As you find quotes, stats, or other information you definitely want to cite in your paper, paste it into the “Quotes” section of the outline so it’s easy to access later!
Make sure you allot some time for this, and decide how you want to do it. Doing all your research online is convenient, and doesn’t require pants, but don’t underestimate your local or school library. While asking a professional for help may be intimidating – or feel like overkill – reference librarians are worth their weight in gold. If you’re working with a really unfamiliar paper topic, or feel out of your depth, asking a librarian for help might be the best move you can make.
Whether you’re in college or not, a local university library is likely to be helpful. Larger institutions even have dedicated libraries for different subjects, areas, and types of sources. The librarians here, especially, will be the best help you can get on your paper. If you’re not a student, check the college library website to see what their policy on helping the public is, and call or email ahead if you’ll need special reference help. As a library worker, I can promise that being kind and conscientious will encourage your librarian to go above and beyond in helping you.
Online sources are nothing to scoff at, though. If you’re not super familiar with the concepts you’re writing about, head to Wikipedia. As a tertiary source, aka a source that cites other places for it’s information, you can’t cite Wikipedia on most papers. But Wikipedia conveniently links you to all the sources it uses, making it a great place to get a basic understanding and find some beginning sources.
Once you’re past the Wikipedia stage, you’ll be ready to start doing original research of your own. Whether you’re in high school or college, you’ll likely have access to at least a few databases. These are a goldmine of information, but the amount of long articles can get overwhelming. Read abstracts before you launch into the whole work to make sure it’s relevant to your topic. If you’re not sure, skim the piece, using headings as guide. If it seems relevant, read it more carefully. If not, you haven’t wasted any time reading the whole thing, only to realize it’s useless.
Oh, and if you don’t have access to databases, Google Scholar > regular Google. This way, you search only peer-reviewed or reputable sources. Google Scholar lets you save, cite, set alerts, and calculate metrics, all on-site.
My most important piece of advice, though? Do your citations as you do your research. They may be the most dreaded part of any essay, but they don’t, in all honesty, take very long once you know how to do them. Consult Purdue’s OWL if you’re not sure about formatting, or find a site that will do your citations for you, like EasyBib.
Take advantage of your database subscriptions while you’ve got them. A lot of databases will generate citations for you. Look for a “cite” button and paste your citations into the “Sources” section at the bottom of the outline as you go. Google Scholar will also generate sources for you.
Writing a Thesis Statement
So you’ve got your research, you know where you stand on your topic, and you understand it well enough to make some sort of claim about it. If you haven’t said yes to all these statements, you’re not ready to write your thesis yet.
I actually have a whole post on writing a strong thesis, if you decide you need the help. But basically, a strong thesis does four things:
- Takes a stance
- Previews arguments
- Aims for brevity
- Is definitive
Re: Taking a stance: This is a school paper, not your personal manifesto, so you don’t have to ardently believe everything you write, you just need to make a convincing argument. Be definitive, pick a position, and defend it strongly.
Re: Previewing arguments: It is possible to overdo this and get a thesis like: “W is good because X, Y, and Z.” You don’t want to be this specific, but if your main points will fall into some sort of larger category, go ahead and mention it.
Re: Brevity: I’m just gonna say it: you don’t need a two-sentence thesis. 99% of the time, you can say it in one. Make your argument both clearly and concisely!
Re: Being definitive: “Might” and “could” are weak sauce – unless you’re writing about highly technical science things where accuracy is important, just state your thesis as fact. It’ll make your reader more likely to believe you!
Once you have your thesis, add it to your essay outline for easy reference.
Your Thesis Might Change As You Write
That can be okay. If your argument becomes narrower, more defined, more nuanced, or more detailed as you go, that’s an awesome evolution and you should edit your thesis statement to reflect these changes. That will make your thesis stronger.
If your argument changes drastically as you write, you’re looking at a problem. You probably weren’t prepared to start writing when you did. That doesn’t mean the writing that you got as a result is bad, but you should look at it critically to make sure it’s well supported, well argued, and focused. If it is, cool, change your thesis and proceed accordingly. If not, head back to the drawing board, do a little more research, and don’t get discouraged. You’ve definitely got this.
Find Your Main Points
Each body paragraph – or group of body paragraphs, depending on paper length and the complexity of your ideas – should focus around a main point. Each main point should serve to support your thesis. Each main point should be supported by evidence and rhetoric.
Think of at least three good, strong arguments as to why your thesis is correct. For short papers, you may only need to write a paragraph for each main point. For longer papers, you may need to write multiple paragraphs about more than three arguments. It really depends. To find these arguments, look back over your gathered evidence for common themes, cause-and-effect statements, or any particularly strong statements or statistics.
Now think about order. How do your arguments connect to one another? Use more basic arguments at the beginning of your paper, to help you introduce your issue. If arguments are related, do one after the other to make your transitions easier. Spend a few minutes fiddling with order, and your paper will flow much better.
Once you have your ideas chosen and arranged, convert each of them into a topic sentence. Preview your argument and explain how it supports your thesis. Add these topic sentences to the labelled area on your essay outline. If you can think of transitions now, add them now. But don’t worry about proving your main points just yet. Instead, make your point clear, and explain how it ties into the argument of the paper as a whole.
Support With Evidence
Since you have a whole bunch of quotes pasted into the top of your outline, and you used them to choose your topic sentences, adding evidence to your essay outline should be as simple as cutting and pasting evidence to the argument it inspired. If you have similar arguments, choosing which quote goes where might be challenging, but don’t worry too much at this point.
The real trick with evidence is integrating it into your argument in a way that feels natural and makes sense. A good rule of thumb is to follow these steps:
- Present & cite your evidence
- Provide background – explain terms if they’re new, give context to numbers, remind readers of previous ideas
- Explain impact – talk about how this evidence supports your topic sentence.
Remember, the things you add to this outline don’t need to be full, perfect sentences yet. You can – and should! – use bullet points, sentence fragments, and even single words to remind yourself of your intention. Making your ideas pretty is part of writing, not outlining!
Fill in Your Transitions
Now that you know all your arguments, their nuances, and how they’ll fit together, you can add in your transitions. Since you placed your arguments based on how they related to each other, there should be some natural flow already, making your transitions easier.
If you’re reading a blog post on paper writing, you’re probably in late high school or college. So, at this point in your writing career, you should be using really strong transitions. You’re no longer at a point where you can get away with just saying “Next,” and then filling in your topic sentence.
The strongest transitions relate the previous point to the one you’re introducing. Show how the ideas are related, or unrelated, and why that’s significant. Remember why you put your arguments in this order, and add transitions to your essay outline.
Introductions and Conclusions
These are two super-tricky parts of any paper. The key to nailing them is connecting them, which is just what we’re going to do.
Some parts of your outline are already filled out. Your intro should have a thesis, and your conclusion’s argument previews and recaps should be a snap to fill in now. What’s really left is the “hook.” If you hate that word, think of it as a framework or a theme. If you can bookend your paper with something interesting and memorable, your paper will stand out more.
To find your hook, think about your topic. What’s exciting about it? Why do you care? Why are you writing about it? If this is a terrible paper for a class you hate and you genuinely don’t care, imagine that you do. Find something in the topic that speaks to you. Maybe it’s a super interesting period in the past, or a topic that could lead to a better future. Maybe you’re talking about something beautiful, or terrifying, or strange, and you can describe it vividly.
Once you’ve found something memorable about your topic, use it to introduce and conclude the paper. Present your interesting hook at the beginning of the paper, and then expand on it to work into your thesis. In your conclusion, after you’ve explained your argument and recalled your thesis, do the opposite and narrow back into this single, interesting point, observation, or perspective to give your paper a sense of unity.
With such an extensive essay outline, this part of the process shouldn’t be nearly as intimidating as it was.
I really recommend writing in the same document as your outline. It might seem cluttered, but all your information is right there already, so it should be easier. One trick I swear by: Save your outline, and when you start writing in it, use Save As to make an actual-essay copy as well. This way, you keep a clean copy of your outline, so you can delete parts of it as you go without losing your ideas.
Then, it’s a matter of following your outline and connecting all your ideas together. If you’re looking for a little more help editing, I have a 10-minute editing plan that might help!
Best of luck with your paper – and share your best outlining strategies with me in the comments!