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Outlining: Writing

Guide contents

Fast facts

  • Building an outline is an effective way to plan or understand the structure of an essay.
  • Outlines aren't just for planning: they can help with rethinking, reshaping and editing as well.
  • There is no 'right way' to outline: play with various outlining techniques to discover what works best for you.

What is outlining?

An outline is an organised list of major and minor points used to map out the structure of an essay. We choose the verb to build for our outlines, instead of to write, because we think of them as a structure for our ideas. They are the frame from which we will turn our thoughts into sentences, paragraphs, and full essays.

Many people like to build at least a rough outline before they begin to draft their work. However, the outline can come at any point in your writing process. Maybe you want to begin with a list of ideas and fill it in as you research. Maybe you want to form your thesis after doing a lot of research. Maybe you write a simple draft first and then do a reverse outline from that.

Tip: Revisit your outline throughout the process of rough drafting, reshaping the outline as your work progresses. That’s called a recursive system. It’s smart. Be smart and use it!

How to do it

There are many options for an outline, so the key is to adapt the principles of outlining to your individual writing process. It doesn't matter if your outlining method looks weird or nonsensical to other people: the outline serves you, and you alone.

To start, let's explore one of the most common outlining methods, which we will call 'Loose, Precise, Write'. Here's how it works:

  1. First, build a very loose outline that identifies the main focus/purpose of each paragraph (or if dealing with a longer work, each section of a given chapter).
  2. Next, rework the loose outline: make it more precise by writing out topic sentences, indicating key pieces of evidence or literature, and/or transcribing key ideas in short phrases.
  3. Finally, start to write.

The examples below illustrate the 'Loose, Precise, Write' method for an essay that will critically analyse depictions of transportation in zombie apocalypse films.

'Loose' step: example

Research Question: Why are there no bicycles used in zombie apocalypse films?

  • Introduction.
  • The Road (body paragraph 1).
  • Shaun of the Dead (body 2).
  • 28 Days Later (body 3).
  • Zombieland (body 4).
  • Further analysis and thesis support (body 5-7).
  • Conclusion.

'Precise' step: example

  • Introduction
    • Hook: Where are the bikes?
    • Thesis statement: The absence of bicycles in zombie apocalypse films is more than just plot contrivance – it is a conspiracy.
    • Essay map sentence: To understand this limitation, we will first discuss important films, then the merits of bicycle function, and finally some new understandings behind the anti-bicycle apocalypse.
    • Background: Films to use – The Road, 28 Days Later, Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland.
  • Body paragraph 1 (The Road)
    • Evidence: No bikes in The Road. C’mon Viggo…
    • Analysis: Bikes would have logically helped a lot.
      • a. There was no fuel.
      • b. They had to move a great distance.
      • c. Bikes are quiet.
    • Transition: Same as in Shaun of the Dead.
  • Body paragraph 2 (Shaun of the Dead).
    • [Et cetera.]

'Write' step: example

Introduction: The world is overtaken by zombies, but where are the bikes? In film after film, un-infected characters face the difficult task of moving from a dangerous place to a safer one. Often it is on foot or by car and there are various risks (fuel, noise, exposure, speed, etc.) in both options. A largely unexplored transport option is the bicycle. Which raises the question: why are there no bikes? They are efficient, quiet, and available. The reactionary response would argue that it is a conspiracy – but by whom? In order to answer such questions, this paper will begin with a discussion of relevant films to establish the trend. Then, this paper will offer the merits of the bicycle as a superior zombie-avoidance transport. Finally, this paper will expose the anti-bicycle and pro-automobile conspiracy foisted on viewers. Spoiler alert: it’s all about OIL. Let’s move into the relevant literature: The Road, 28 Days Later, Shaun of the Dead, and Zombieland. [Et cetera.]

Outlining to resolve writing difficulties

As stated above, there is no 'right way' to outline. In fact, you might prefer to build a mind map, move sticky notes around a wall, etc. – the key is to ensure at least one practice in your writing process enables you to envision structure, connect ideas, and consider how argument progresses. To tailor an outlining approach that helps you grow as a writer, try this:

  1. First, reflect on how and why you would like to improve your writing or writing process.
  2. Then, consider if an adjustment to your outlining technique could help address the issue.
  3. Finally, test the outlining modification, and see how it works out.

Example 1: You often receive feedback that your essays are 'jumpy' and movement between points is 'abrupt'.

Outlining fix: You can modify your outlining technique to include the first sentence (e.g. topic sentence) and final sentence (e.g. takeaway or transition sentence) of each body paragraph. Doing this will encourage you to pay more attention to how you establish the focus of individual paragraphs and enable 'flow' between ideas. [For more on topic sentences and takeaway points, see our Basics of Structure webinar.]

Example 2: You often receive feedback that your ideas are good, but you don't support them with sufficient evidence or literature.

Outlining fix: You might stick to a loose outlining method (i.e., a bullet point per body paragraph with just a few words to express the main idea). However, add one important modification: under each body paragraph's bullet point, add two sub-bullets called Evidence 1 and Evidence 2. Doing this will remind you to reference at least two distinct pieces of literature to support each paragraph's central claim.

In the next section, you will read about some other ways to tailor your outlining approach. The list is by no means exhaustive, so feel free to mix, match, and get creative.

Experiments in outlining

Digital companions – The bullet points and/or numbered formatting available in any word processor offer a great foundation for outlining. Importantly, you can indent to visualize the hierarchy or nesting of ideas. However, dedicated outlining apps offer additional functionality such as branching/tree options, collapsible headings, rearrangeable elements and more. If such features sound helpful to you, just run a search for 'outlining apps' and play with what's out there.

Colour coding – An outline needn't be black and white! You can use colour however you see fit, but let's start with two common ways to use colour in outlines:

  • To track drafting progress, you assign colours to signify 'Complete' (perhaps green) and 'Not Yet Started' (perhaps red). You can also signify a middle grounds, e.g. 'In Progress', 'Done But Need to Add Literature', or other states (perhaps yellow). As you work on your rough draft, you update the highlighting in your outline. This lets you understand with a quick glance what you have completed so far, and where you should resume in your next writing session.
  • To code writing elements, you assign colours to signify 'moves' or elements of the writing. For example, blue might indicate claims, orange might indicate supporting evidence, and purple might indicate analysis of counterarguments. This approach can be helpful if you are working to deepen the criticality of your prose, as you can track how you are engaging with contrasting viewpoints and literature.

Going old school – Even tech-savvy writers can find merits in an 'old school' approach to outlining. You know how satisfying it is to cross items off a paper to-do list as you finish them? If you outline in a notebook, that same satisfaction awaits with each paragraph you draft! In all seriousness, some people find it easier to engage in the inventive, sloppy parts of writing via pencil rather than typing; somehow, a scrap of notebook paper can feel less daunting than a blank Word document. If you get overwhelmed or freeze up when you start to plan an essay structure, try going old school: it might help.

  • Tip: Get crafty. Grab scissors to cut outline pieces into strips, or jot your ideas onto index cards or sticky notes. This will let you nimbly rearrange your points to build a structure that flows logically. (Just remember to pin the pieces in place or take a snapshot before your cat scatters that precious outline into every corner of the room. Ahem...)

Zoom in, zoom out, regroup – As silly as this might sound, one of the most important skills in academic writing is grouping: specifically, the critical thought you apply when grouping related ideas, and your ability to break a related group into logical subgroups as needed. When outlining, remember to think about comfortable paragraph lengths and the reader's experience. You might need to subdivide, consolidate or shuffle points in your outline as you draft.

  • Subdivision example: In your outline, you allocated a single paragraph to focus on 'Inclusive nursing practices'. As you draft, that paragraph is becoming unwieldy, yet the material is all relevant to the assignment aims. Therefore, you regroup and amend your outline, converting one paragraph into three: 'Inclusive nursing: plain-speech communication', 'Inclusive nursing: LGBTQ+ patients', and 'Inclusive nursing: religiously diverse patients'.
  • Consolidation example: An assignment asks you to consider the extent to which TikTok has influenced Gen-Z's attitudes towards the consumption of fast fashion. To build a foundation for the analysis, you want to define and explore relevant aspects of Gen-Z itself, so your outline first allocates three paragraphs to this purpose. However, as you draft, you 'zoom out' and realise this approach simply won't work given the assignment's maximum word count. Therefore, you cut the broadest or most general background on Gen-Z, consolidating the three envisioned paragraphs into one or two that maintain tighter, more relevant focus.

Bring an awareness of grouping to your outlining practice by critically considering the hierarchy or nesting of ideas. For longer assignments, it's helpful to think not just in terms of 'paragraphs > essay', but 'paragraphs > major sections > essay'.