I am a college student, and as a college student, I’m given the responsibility of writing dozens of papers per semester before being given a pretty piece of paper after four years that says, “You did it; good luck now lol.” Seeing as some of these papers have been assigned at fairly inconvenient times, many nights I have found myself hopelessly hurling words at a Google Doc in an attempt to piece together something resembling an essay, praying that a coherent idea might stick to the page. Of course, any time someone suggests that I do some outlining before writing my full paper, I exclaim, “I don’t have time for that!” as I continue drop-kicking my laptop in frustration. Perhaps you can relate.
Yes, writing an outline can sometimes feel like doing an extra, unnecessary assignment when you are already stressed out. But forming a preliminary outline before jumping into the essay can keep your thoughts structured and save an incredible amount of time, especially if you often find yourself desperately staring at a blank document thinking, “Maybe if I believe hard enough, the paper will write itself.”
So, what is a preliminary outline? A preliminary outline is a rough set of ideas that will eventually turn into a thesis statement and the branching concepts surrounding the thesis. After narrowing down a topic and finding reliable sources, preliminary outlining is a crucial step in organizing all the information you’ve found and determining what is relevant to your paper and what is not. This will be particularly useful when it comes time to analyze and organize your sources alongside your main arguments and commentary.
So how should you organize and structure your outline? Well, since the outline is preliminary (meaning in preparation for something larger), there isn’t a tried and true way to form it. However, I would recommend trying to stick with the same structure as most papers: an overarching idea at the top and minor ideas below it. Keep in mind what your thesis might be and what branching elements can come from it. Also, reference your sources, and start thinking about how and where in the paper you might want to utilize them. There will be a lot of moving pieces in this stage, so be flexible and understand that your ideas may change as you gather more information from your sources.
Okay, before you start hyperventilating about making the perfectly constructed outline, breathe. All of these steps are for your benefit, and they are meant to help you. If your outline helps keep your information organized and your ideas together, then you have made a good outline. So the next time you find yourself with a blank Word document at two in the morning and your stress makes you want to take a chainsaw to your laptop, consider starting with an outline before tackling the big assignment.