Write From The Heart

How to Write an Outline

Whether you’re writing a five-paragraph essay or a major research project, knowing how to write an outline will help you remain organized and on track as you draft your work.

Just about every writer, English teacher, or seasoned student would agree – outlining is an essential part of the writing process. Whether you’re writing a five-paragraph essay or a major research project, knowing how to write an outline will help you remain organized and on track as you draft your work.

An outline is essentially a road map to guide your writing.

Before you begin drafting, you create an outline to plan the order in which you will present your content. Usually, you want at least five headings in your outline – an introduction, three supporting points, and a conclusion. You will likely also include subpoints under each of these headings.

A typical outline looks like this:

  1. Introduction
    • Thesis statement
  2. Supporting Point #1
    • Sub-point A
    • Sub-point B
    • Sub-point C
  3. Supporting Point #2
    • Sub-point A
    • Sub-point B
    • Sub-point C
  4. Supporting Point #3
    • Sub-point A
    • Sub-point B
    • Sub-point C
  5. Conclusion

You would then fill out this basic template with more detailed information for your particular paper.

However, even though most outlines follow a similar structure, there are about as many different ways to fill them in as there are different types of writers. That makes it difficult to propose a “one-size-fits-all” approach.

Still, there are some key elements that should be in any outline.

Here are three tips for how you can best make use of these elements to maximize your outline’s effectiveness.

1. Write Your Thesis Statement First

Thesis statements can be considered “mini-outlines.” In one straightforward sentence, they inform your reader of the main claim (or argument) in your paper, as well as at least three pieces of evidence you will use to support that claim.

It is often helpful to write a “working thesis” before you form the rest of your outline. This is basically a rough draft of your thesis statement, which you are completely free to change later. However, at the beginning of the writing process when you may be feeling overwhelmed, a working thesis can help you decide how to organize the body of your paper.

For instance, if you are writing a five-paragraph essay about why you love dogs, your working thesis could be:

“Dogs are the best pets because they are friendly, intelligent, and cute.”

You may want to add more detail to this statement later, but for now, you know the first point in your essay will discuss how dogs are friendly companions, your second point will assess canine intelligence, and your third point will contemplate cuteness. In your outline, these would make up the three supporting points. There you go – you already have the bones of your outline!

2. Create Your Hook

When writing academic works, first impressions are very important. You might have a unique and fascinating topic for your research paper, but if you don’t catch your reader’s interest in your introduction, they’re not likely to want to keep reading. That’s where the “hook” comes in.

The hook is usually found in the first sentence or few sentences of the introduction.

Just like a fishhook gets caught in a fish’s mouth when it goes after some enticing bait, the hook of your essay should grab your reader’s attention so they feel compelled to read more.

Planning out your hook in your outline is a great way to prepare for writing your first draft. Have you ever sat in front of an empty Word document and stared at the cursor, wishing some words – any words – would come to mind? When you know you have an entire paper to write, you’re more likely to experience writer’s block like this. However, if you plan ahead and get your hook written in advance, you already have at least one sentence to prime the pump for the rest of your paper!

What kinds of sentences make the best hooks?

Well, there is plenty of room for creativity here. The most unlikely introductions might be the most captivating for your reader! However, some tried-and-true examples of hooks include:

  • Posing a compelling question, which you will then answer throughout the course of your paper. (Bonus! You can come back to this question in your conclusion and recount how you have addressed it.)
  • Creating an anecdote. Here’s where your creativity comes in handy! You can either use a true story from your research or write a hypothetical one. Keep in mind, these anecdotes should be very brief – just a few sentences long. Remember, you’re writing an academic paper, not a novel!
  • Presenting statistics. Sometimes during the course of your research, you will come across a piece of statistical evidence that would totally add poignancy to your paper. Why not use it to introduce your topic? Just be careful; statistics aren’t always the most interesting hook, so make sure you only use those that would truly be impressive to your readers. It might help to do a test run with someone else to see how they react to the information.

These are by no means the only types of hooks you can write. Feel free to think outside the box. Ask your instructor for advice if you feel stuck or if you want to know if your idea is too unconventional. And remember, even if you write your hook during the outlining process, you aren’t permanently locked into that idea. You can always come back and edit!

3. Incorporate Your Research

However you choose to compile information during your research process, it can be confusing and overwhelming to find the best content and incorporate it into your paper. One way to make this step a little easier is to put the research you want to write about in your outline.

Start by reading through the notes you have compiled while researching. You’ll usually have a lot more information than you need, so be sure to keep your thesis statement in mind while choosing what to include. Remember, every topic in your paper should relate back to your thesis, so every piece of research should further develop these topics.

When you run across something in your notes that you want to put in your paper, write it into your outline under the supporting point with which it best fits. This can be as detailed or as simple as you want, as long as you know where to find more details when you need them.

One important thing to remember is that you will need to cite your sources in your paper. Why not do this in your outline, too? If you place an in-text citation after every piece of research in your outline, you will save yourself time and effort when drafting.

Outlining is an essential tool to writing.

Now you know how to write an outline. While creating an outline may not be the most exciting part of academic writing, it is an essential way to keep you organized and focused. Outlining isn’t meant to impede your creativity; it should be a tool that works for you, not against you. Sometimes, you can even get some of your hardest work done during the outlining stage! Try the three tips discussed above next time you need to outline – incorporating your thesis, your hook, and your research – and, while you’re at it, consider other ways you can use your outline to set your first draft up for success. Find the way of outlining that works best for you, and then get writing!

Written by Emily Swafford

Emily Swafford loved taking classes from Write from the Heart all through middle and high school. She credits this writing program with pointing her toward her future career! She recently graduated from college with a degree in communication, and she is now putting her studies to use as a freelance writer and editor. She’s an avid reader and is also working on writing her second novel. She and her husband, Caleb (another Write from the Heart alumnus), are excited to welcome their first baby in October!

Whether you’re writing a five-paragraph essay or a major research project, knowing how to write an outline will help you remain organized and on track as you draft your work.

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