[FREE outline template available for download at the end]
Ah, the dreaded outline. Most of us hate the outlines our English teachers made us write. However, when done correctly, outlines can do most of the writing for us.
There are many types and formats when it comes to outlines, but no single format is perfect or the “right” one. The outlines you use should:
-be easy to use
-help you structure and organize your paper
-be effective tools in planning your essay.
When I was a writing tutor, I would have students come to me with formal MLA (Modern Language Association) style outlines, having little idea on how to fill them out and use them—which is why I advise using a simpler outline format.
You can use an already existing outline format, one that consists of only bullet points and headings, or one that you create and personalize for a specific essay or writing project.
Regardless of what type of outline you use, every outline should consist of main ideas that support your thesis. Underneath the main idea, add details that expand or explain the main idea and include evidence that supports it. I will include an example later in the post.
Not Your Professor’s Outline
Unfortunately, many composition and writing teachers force students to write the rigid sentence or topic outline like this:
II. main heading
Now keep in mind this is all for just one main point that supports the thesis. If I had to complete this type of outline for an essay, I would spend all of my time working on the outline and figuring out what goes where.
Of course, if this type of outline works for you, then by all means use it.
However, if you want to use an outline that is more simple, yet combines the advantages of both informal (listing ideas in order by pages or paragraphs) and formal outlines, you can use a template like this:
Thesis: ISIS has considerably impacted the Syrian civil war through their brutal human rights violations and their exacerbation of armed conflict among several opposition groups. However, the ISIS threat to regional and international powers may be diminished by specific military, diplomatic, and communication strategies.
A. Main point that supports your thesis. (example: ISIS has significantly impacted the Syrian civil war because when they entered the conflict and capitalized on the instability in the region, they aggravated current divisions among several opposition groups and Assad forces)
i. evidence/elaboration that supports main point
example: ISIS forces, which were previously Al Qaeda affiliated, fought against Al-Nusra, a subgroup of Al Qaeda. Thus, the tensions among Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and Al-Nusra led to further divisions and to an increasingly “chaotic, semi-proxy war unlike any previous problem encountered, made even more challenging by the limited U.S. presence” (Cragin 312).
ii. evidence/elaboration that supports main point
Take a look at the boldfaced and underlined words and see how they connect. As you may notice, I get more specific and detailed as I transition from my thesis to point “A.” and point “i.” Notice also how I concentrate on one part of the thesis in point “A.” (that ISIS made conflicts more severe among several opposition groups in the Syrian war).
No matter what format you use, always include your evidence/sources/quotes in your outline, so you don’t lose track of what source(s) the information on your outline is coming from.
Unintentional plagiarism often happens when students forget to cite certain information or forget the source their research is coming from.
Don’t be Tied to the Outline
As you continue to research, write, and think, you will find yourself wanting to revisit and change your thesis slightly or add/remove certain points, details, or evidence that support your thesis. That is perfectly fine.
However, some teachers will prohibit students from making changes to their outlines later in the writing process. You may have different deadlines for your outline, drafts, and final essay and may be graded on all of them.
If this is the case for you, talk to your teacher.
When students are prevented from discovering new ideas and gaining insights, they often write poor essays. Then teachers are surprised when students turn in work below their expectations.
How I Outline
Sometimes I make rough outlines based on page counts. Here’s a portion of a rough outline I did for a research paper in my Politics of the Middle East class:
3 and a half pages: Some discussion of Islamic State’s History and background: their goals, how they came to be, their purpose, the threat of a direct attack by ISIS or ISIS-inspired attacks by those who live on U.S. soil etc.
- One page or one and a half page: IS social media accounts: this section would connect with section “4” (see below) because some analysts say that intelligence agencies should delete IS social media accounts as best as they can or block them in the U.S. because young people in the U.S. are either joining ISIS or carrying out ISIS-inspired attacks.
However, (besides not being entirely feasible), that may destroy intelligence the U.S. can use to fight ISIS; and to be effective, this would have to be carried out would also require multinational companies (like twitter or facebook) operating in other countries to comply with shutting down certain social media accounts; this policy would also require cooperation with other countries especially in the MENA region and some governments may have an issue with this (real life example: Egypt shut down twitter last year because of IS social media accounts, but put it back up again the next day).
-also talk about intergovernmental agency cooperation
Section “2” Would go under “intelligence” section
One page: Discussion of multinational Military campaign against ISIS: a U.S. led coalition with some European and MENA countries against IS; cooperation needed with other states to fight IS.
Now, this is an extensive outline because I’ve already done some research and have some ideas. If I’ve done little research then I don’t go into this much detail. I’ll often just make a bullet point and then write additional details expanding the point. As I research and think about my paper and topic, I’ll add to the outline.
This type of outline allows most of the work and writing to already be completed for me because I immediately write down my ideas. I can always go back and add to my notes or take something out.
(A Note: this type of ‘rough outline’ is different than just notes. Notes in the planning and ordering/prewriting stage of the writing process are either brief sentences of an idea or comments on the research and sources you will be using for your paper).
Remember: you can use different types of outlines and feel free to experiment. The best outline is one that works for you.
What outline format or type do you use? Do you use an outline at all? Tell me in the comments below!
Want a FREE outline template for your next writing project? Download your outline template here.