4a. Outlining

Outlining is a focused prewriting and visualization technique that helps writers organize their ideas for an essay to meet a word count requirement, to decide which evidence and appeals will best suit their purpose and audience, and keep arguments and counterarguments focused on the main idea. Drafting is the step in the writing process at which you compose a complete first version of an academic essay or other piece of writing. Organizing your ideas for an essay into a formal or informal outline will help you translate your raw insights and research into a form that will communicate meaning to a reader. It will also provide you with a guide to follow in that moment when you reach the end of a paragraph and need to transition to a new one. Used in combination, outlining and drafting are powerful tools that can writers use to organize their ideas, previsualize their finished piece of writing, and manage their time effectively as the clock ticks down toward your deadlines.


Planning Ahead

When tasked with composing an essay, giving a presentation, or writing an application letter, you need to develop your ideas in an order that makes sense to your audience and suits the purpose of the task. Order refers to your choice of what to present first, second, third, and so on in your writing – from the order of individual words in a sentence to the order of sentences in paragraphs and paragraphs in an essay. Outlining provides writers the ability to play around with the order of ideas, evidence, paragraphs, and other elements of an essay before committing them to the page. A formal outline is a detailed guide that shows how all of your supporting ideas relate to each other and to your thesis. It helps you distinguish between ideas and details that are of relatively equal importance from ones of lesser or supporting importance. An outline is a useful framework for crafting your first draft.

Cognitively, outlining also stimulates the brain to begin previsualizing a finished composition. With practice, a writer can use an outline (or even a detailed task analysis, freewrite, or idea map) to think spatially and temporally about the writing process. Thinking spatially involves a writer’s ability to picture how the essay will take physical shape on the page as their thoughts flow from their fingertips through the pen or keyboard and become words, sentences, paragraphs, and even chapters. Temporal thinking involves a writer’s ability to conceptualize and schedule the hours, days, or even months that will be required to draft, revise, and edit any essay or writing task. While writers are always making spatial and temporal decisions internally while planning and drafting an essay, an outline can provide you a concrete representation of your planning and a guide to follow while writing your first draft.

As writers consider the purpose and goals for a writing task, they often begin by prewriting to reflect on the best way to order their ideas, appeals, and evidence. Poets, journalists, and essayists and other writers typically balance order and purpose in their writing by considering three ways of organizing:

  • Order of Importance
  • Chronological Order
  • Spatial Order




Order of Importance
  • To persuade or convince
  • To rank or evaluate items or issues by the value or significance
Chronological Order
  • To explain the history of an event or topic
  • To narrate a story or share an anecdote
  • To explain the steps in a process of making, doing, or thinking
Spatial Order
  • To help readers visualize a person, place, or event as you see it
  • To describe sensory examples: sight, smell, sound, taste, touch


Academic essays typically deploy Order of Importance strategies. Once you have written out our working thesis, you are ready to develop a formal outline for an academic essay. There are many strategies and methods for outlining an essay. Typically, a formal outline uses numbers and letters or bullet points to format the page.

A formal outline for an academic essay will typically look something like the following example. An outline like this one can help you make sure that your essays develop your own voice as a writer and use your sources for support, rather than letting your sources dominate the essay.  Distinguished Professor of Writing Lisa Ede once said, “let your writing tell you what to read.” Creating even a skeletal outline for an essay or writing project allows you to follow that advice and confidently develop your voice while reading, researching, and drafting.

  • Introduction

    • Lure/Hook
    • Topic Context
      • Question at issue
    • Thesis
    • Preview of main ideas (useful for essays that are longer than five paragraphs)


  • Background and Context

    • Depending on the length and content requirements of an essay assignment, it may be useful to include a background and context paragraph to define keywords, provide background information or historical context, or situate your approach to a topic in relation to a particular audience or discourse community.
  • Supporting Arguments

    As many as needed to develop your thesis and meet your word count.

    • Topic Sentence
    • Reasoning
    • Evidence
      • Signal Phrase
      • Quotation or Paraphrase
      • Explanation
    • Analysis
    • Transition
  • Alternative/Opposing Arguments

    As needed to develop your thesis

    • Topic Sentence: Assertion about your thesis from an alternative perspective
    • Reasoning
    • Evidence
    • Analysis and refutation (if needed) of the alternative reasoning
    • Transition


  • Synthesis

    • Synthesis paragraphs reflect on the relationship between the supporting and alternative arguments and consider the possibilities for reaching common ground on the issue
  • Conclusion

    • Reiterate your main idea and summarize how you arrived at your thesis
    • Consider the broader implication and/or limitations of your reasoning and evidence
    • Circle the reader back to your opening sentences to bring them full circle
  • References

    • Citation styles vary by academic discipline and instructor preference. Humanities scholars generally use MLA, social science and science scholars generally use APA, and styles like Chicago and Harvard are used in a variety of academic disciplines


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Writing as Inquiry Copyright © 2021 by Kara Clevinger and Stephen Rust is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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