Essay Organization and Outline Building

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  • 0:03 Why Outline?
  • 1:07 How to Outline
  • 3:01 How to Arrange Ideas
  • 7:51 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Bonn

Amy has taught college and law school writing courses and has a master's degree in English and a JD.

Creating an outline before writing an academic essay doesn't take that long to do and can greatly improve the quality of your essay. This lesson covers the basics of how to put together an effective outline that will cover all of the right points.

Why Outline?

When you think of outlining an essay, chances are that visions of Roman numerals, detailed explanations and lots of extra formalities go through your head. An outline, as you may recall from English class, is basically an organizational plan for an essay.

Some English teachers require students to submit formal outlines with their papers, and these formal outlines do sometimes require a set system of Roman numerals, capital letters and Arabic numbers, followed by fully researched details in complete sentences.

These types of outlines can be quite useful. In fact, the more thorough an outline, the easier it can be to write your actual essay, because the more time and details that you put into planning, the less time you'll find yourself needing to dedicate to the actual writing stage for your paper.

However, for most college writing and for most timed writing exams, you won't be required to turn in an outline at all. What that means is that you don't have to get too hung up on indenting everything perfectly or coming up with an exact number of major entries with Roman numerals or subheads. You can adapt the formal structure as needed, and you can use whatever outlining method that works for you.

How to Outline

A formal outline format involves presenting your major ideas following Roman numerals, and then your important sub-points following capital letters and, finally, your details following Arabic numbers.

This basic method can be useful because it calls for you to plan out your major ideas and your support for those ideas and to organize everything before you write your actual paper. By sketching out your points before actually writing paragraphs, you'll be able to take a step back to see if your major ideas are well-organized, and if you have enough details to support those major ideas. Figuring out what problems there might be at this stage will make things much easier for you than if you discovered those problems in the middle of writing your paper.

Let's take a look at our essay writing prompt to get a sense of how we might construct an outline for a specific paper topic:

Some states have made certain types of cell phone use illegal for drivers while they are operating motor vehicles. Some of these bans apply only to texting, and some bans apply to all handheld cell phone use. Some people argue that all cell phone use by drivers is dangerous and that all use by drivers should, therefore, be banned. Should your state completely ban all cell phone use for drivers while they are operating motor vehicles? Write a persuasive essay in which you present your argument. Be sure to provide a clear thesis and examples in your essay.

One important rule when it comes to outlining is that you should develop your thesis first. Write or print out your thesis and have it in front of you while you work on your outline. That way, you can frequently check to be sure that each major idea and detail in your outline directly relates to and supports your thesis statement. If you ever come up with a point that strays from your thesis, you'll quickly be able to spot it. Including irrelevant points is one way to lose a lot of points on a graded essay.

We've already drafted our thesis statement, which clearly presents our position on the issue: 'My state should completely ban all cell phone use for drivers while they are operating motor vehicles because such a ban would reduce distractions and save lives.'

How to Arrange Ideas

We don't have to come up with good points of argument at the outlining stage, as we've already done some prewriting. Let's take a look at the points that we came up with during our brainstorming process:

  • Would cut down on distracted driving
  • Would reduce accidents, save lives
  • Making calls can be just as distracting as texting
  • Would send a message that no distractions are acceptable while driving

During the prewriting stage, we brainstormed for ideas, but we didn't worry about grammar, whether the ideas would all definitely be useable or what order we should put them in. Now is the time to think about sentence structure, quality of ideas and logical order.

We already decided, when drafting our thesis statement, that our first two ideas - would cut down on distracted driving and would reduce accidents, save lives - were important ones to include in our paper. Looking at our brainstorming list, in fact, those two ideas would make sense as our first and second major ideas. The very first logical point that comes to mind when arguing in favor of a complete cell phone ban for drivers is that it would prevent distractions. That idea leads logically to the next point, that accidents would be prevented, thereby saving lives.

I mentioned a moment ago that we should think a bit about grammar at this point. It's useful to think about topic sentences while outlining. A topic sentence is the sentence that expresses the main idea of a body paragraph or group of related body paragraphs. A topic sentence is often the very first sentence of a paragraph. We could turn our first two brainstorming ideas - which we originally wrote as sentence fragments - into complete sentences so that they can work as topic sentences for our first and second body paragraphs:

  1. Our first idea could become: 'A complete ban on all cell phone use for drivers would reduce distracted driving.'
  2. Our second idea could become: 'The complete cell phone ban should be put in place in our state because reduced distractions would mean fewer accidents, and this would save lives.'

Thus far, our outline looks like the one below, with our thesis at the top, and our first two topic sentences comprising the first two Roman numeral entries, indicating that they are our first two ideas.

outline for essay

Let's now take a look at our other brainstorming ideas to see if they might be useful. In persuasive essays, it's a good idea to address what you think someone arguing the other side of the issue might say. Someone on the other side might point out that some states ban texting while driving and that that's enough. We could, therefore, use as a counterargument our major idea that making calls can be just as distracting as texting. Let's add that to our outline.

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