How to Write Outlines (and why you need to write them)


See also: How to Write Any Essay

How to Write OutlinesFor the most part, I never minded turning in papers in chunks. First draft, revised draft, final draft… it was an easy way to get completion points.

hated turning in outlines.

How was I supposed to decide what I was going to write before I had even worked out my first draft? And why would I box myself in with what I was and wasn’t going to talk about before actually doing any writing?

Half the time I ended up writing my first draft, summarizing it in outline form, and then turning in each part as it was due. The other half of the time I would make up some random crap in bullet points and never look at it again. Until I started having to write essays in 40 minutes for AP English.

You need outlines

When you need to write productively, there is no better tool than an outline at your side. This is true of any kind of writing: novels, songs, papers, blog posts, letters.

If you are writing with intention and/or a deadline, you need to outline your work. Period. (Unless you enjoy being an artistic mess.)

Here’s what’s in it for you when you use outlines:

  • Write faster. With an outline, you know what you need to say. You cut down on writer’s block by having an outline telling you what to write; you just have to do it. And since you know where your piece is headed, you can cut down on fluff, bunny trails, and tangents from the get-go.
  • Stay organized. It’s easier to rearrange ideas on one page than across 7-200 pages. Outlines help you avoid tangents, and make sure that the pacing and flow of ideas stay manageable.
  • Keep your writing on track. When I write and get off on tangents, they’re full of pertinent information—they just don’t fit where I put them. Having an outline allows me to write in the flow of my creative space, but ultimately put my ideas where they best contribute to the argument or story.
  • Remember what’s important. I include quotes and sentence ideas in my outlines so I don’t forget them.

Okay, so the real benefit of outlining is that it keeps you focused and gives you an easily accessible summary of your argument. How does this help your writing?

All writing benefits from outlining

I gave you a snapshot above of where you can use outlines. To recap it here: all writing can be broken down into an outline. And all intentional writing benefits from an outline.

By intentional writing, I mean writing that is written for a purpose other than experimentation or creative/personal release. If you want to free write for yourself to get your mind off of something or to try and see it from another angle, an outline might actually hinder you.

Here’s a pair of brief examples of how different writing benefits from outlines:

Songs are natural outlines, as they come in preset configurations: Verse, Prechorus, Chorus, Verse, Chorus, Bridge, Chorus… Further outlining your song with details about each part can be especially helpful if you’re telling a story.

Letters or emails also benefit from outlines, especially if you have a lot you need to communicate. Organizing your points chronologically and spatially in the message clarifies your needs for your recipient.

I write 5-20 pages a week in my classes as an English major. This comes in all sorts of kinds of assignments: short stories, papers, peer reviews, responses, presentations, speeches, blog posts… The reason I still have free time is because I make the most of my writing time by outlining (almost) everything first.

How to write outlines

There are a LOT of ways to outline your writing. This article shares 8 of those ways. I’m going to share the 2 forms of outlines that I use most commonly.

The 5 Paragraph Essay

All of my essays are longer than 5 paragraphs, but I still use this outline from my days in AP classes. I start by outlining all my papers like this:

  • I: What is my intro/thesis? What story can I incorporate to generate interest?
  • P1: What is my first piece of evidence or argument for my thesis?
  • P2: What is another piece of evidence or a counterargument for my thesis?
  • P3: What is the strongest point I’m trying to make? Does it need evidence?
  • C: Tying back into the intro, what insight am I trying to share?

I have found a simple outline like this covers 90% of my writing. (… it helps that 90% of my writing is argument-based) I use this for essays, letters, speeches, presentations, memos, sermons, and so on.

This outline form is easy to expand and to cut down. Do I have a sub-point? Put it under the main point. Do I have more or less than 3 points? Add or subtract a P.

The Blog Post Outline

This is another bullet-point outline that I use when I need to be more detailed than a 5 Paragraph Essay outline. I have titled it the “blog-post” outline because if you read any blog post you can break it down to this outline:

  • Title. Can be edited later to be more catchy/appropriate to the final product.
  • Intro. What am I saying and why is it important?
  • Heading 1-?. It’s like a title for the section of the piece. Each heading should be a one-line summary of what the section is about. Each heading may also have subheadings.
  • Call to action. What should my reader do or think as a result of reading this?

This outline is familiar to you because it’s the basis for all of your online skim-reading activities. When you research something, you don’t read the whole article. You skim for the headline that should have what you’re looking for. Then you look for the bullet list or bolded phrasing that actually says it.

Using this kind of outline sets your writing up to communicate clearly with your reader. So use it.

Creative Outlines

A bullet-point outline is super effective for argumentative or informative writing. I use it for my creative writing as well, but there are other fun ways to outline a creative work.

Yes, you should outline your creative stories. You don’t have to precisely map out every detail; leave room for actual creativity and don’t stick so tightly to your outline that you force your characters into doing things they wouldn’t actually do.

However, if you have a whole story in your head, write down the important parts so you remember them. And use an outline to arrange the story in the way that makes the most sense. It’s just smart writing.

Beth, your outlines are sparse.

You may have noticed that my outlines are little more than words, phrases, or half-sentences that summarize my ideas. That’s enough for me.

Only when I am getting into a really huge project will I write full sentences or, heaven forbid, write out my transition sentences before actually writing the paragraphs.

Outlines don’t have to be a huge project. They’re a sketch of the writing you’re about to do; the writing itself fills out the drawing and makes a masterpiece. That’s why you have no excuse for not outlining your writing.

I want to end by disclaiming that in the end, as much as I think every writer should be using outlines, you should use whatever process makes you the most productive and the least stressed. I firmly believe outlining is the best method for achieving this goal, but I also realize that just because it works for me doesn’t mean it is, in fact, the best method.

Don’t knock it till you try it.

What do you think—how has outlining enhanced or stifled your writing process? How do you outline? (Do you outline?) Share in the comments!

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