Writing an outline for your essay requires you to come up creative ways of structuring your ideas.

Taking the time to draft an outline:

  • can help you determine whether your ideas connect to each other
  • will help you decide what order of ideas works best
  • will identify where gaps in your thinking that may exist
  • will identify whether you have sufficient evidence to support each of your points

A good outline is important because:

  • You will be much less likely to get writer's block because an outline will show where you're going and what the next step is. Use the outline to set goals for completing each section of your paper.
  • It will help you stay organized and focused throughout the writing process and helps ensure the flow of ideas in your final paper.
  • However, the outline should be viewed as a guide and can be adapted as you begin writing. As you review the literature or gather data, the organization of your paper may change; adjust your outline accordingly.
  • A clear, detailed outline ensures that you always have something to help re-calibrate your writing if you feel yourself drifting into subject areas unrelated to the research problem. Use your outline to set boundaries around what you will investigate.
  • The outline can be key to staying motivated. You can put together an outline when you're excited about the project and everything is clicking; making an outline is never as overwhelming as sitting down and beginning to write a twenty page paper without any sense of where it is going.
  • An outline helps you organize multiple ideas about a topic. Most research problems can be analyzed from a variety of perspectives; an outline can help you sort out which modes of analysis are most appropriate to ensure the most robust findings are discovered.
  • An outline not only helps you organize your thoughts but can also serve as a schedule for when certain aspects of your writing should be accomplished. Review the assignment and highlight when certain tasks are due. If your professor has not created specific deadlines for handing in your writing, think about your own writing style in relation to other assignments and include this in your outline.

Steps to making the Outline

A strong outline details each topic and subtopic in your paper, organizing these points so that they build your argument toward an evidence-based conclusion. Writing an outline will also help you focus on the task at hand and avoid unnecessary tangents, logical fallacies, and underdeveloped paragraphs.

Identify the research problem. The research problem is the focal point from which the rest of the outline flows. Try to sum up the point of your paper in one sentence or phrase. This is your thesis statement.

Here are some sample research topics to consider:

  • Too Broad: Effects of Volcanoes
  • Too Narrow: The effect of the eruption of Mt. St. Helens on the regeneration of plant species
  • Appropriate: The geographical impact of the eruption of Mt. St. Helens
  • Too Broad: Deindustrialization in Canada
  • Too Narrow: The effect of downsizing on the automobile labour force in Ontario, 1995 - 2015
  • Appropriate: The changing distribution of the Canadian automobile industry
  • Too Broad: Mortgage crisis in Canada
  • Too Narrow: The long term effect of rising housing prices, unaffordable mortgages, and the influence of international buyers in the Canadian market
  • Appropriate: The changing housing markets in Canada and its effect on real estate values

Next steps:

  1. Identify the main categories or topics. What main points will you analyze? The introduction describes all of your main points; the rest of your paper can be spent developing those points.
  2. Create the first category. What is the first point you want to cover? If the paper centers around a complicated term, a definition can be a good place to start. For a paper about a particular theory, giving the general background on the theory can be a good place to begin.
  3. Create sub-categories. After you have followed these steps, create points under it that provide support for the main point. The number of categories that you use depends on the amount of information that you are trying to cover. There is no right or wrong number to use.
  4. Write an analysis or synthesize your main points. You might express the main points in single sentences with supporting references from your annotated bibliography.
  5. Finish your essay with a conclusion. It should sum up your argument but without directly repeating statements from the introduction.

Helpful hints:

  • Choose a topic narrow enough to find specific information, but not so narrow that you cannot find enough information.
  • Before committing to a topic, scan a database such as Omni to see if you will be able to find enough information on that topic.
  • Assemble a variety of information sources or data into a coherent argument to demonstrate that you understand the material.
  • Do not expect to find a book or journal article with the exact title of your topic.
  • Take advantage of the many online databases the library offers for finding journal articles.
  • Scan the bibliography of an up-to-date book or article on your topic in order to gather additional sources.
  • Ensure journal articles that you use for your paper have been peer-reviewed.
  • All references in your paper must be properly cited.
  • Take the time to learn about the specific style that is expected from your professor. View the Citing your sources help pages provided by the library.
  • Ask for help from a subject specialist or librarian.

Adapted from: How to Structure and Organize your paper. Odegaard Writing & Research Center. University of Washington; Why and How to Create a Useful Outline. The Writing and the OWL. Purdue University; Creating Outlines. Writing Center, University of Richmond; A guide to writing geography papers, Saginaw Valley State University Writing Center;
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