Focus on Research| How to Outline and Prepare an Essay: My Patented "Recipe"

My "How to Outline an Essay" Recipe can be adapted to many
different kinds of written assignments

While seemingly formulaic, the ability to outline an essay is critical to your success as a student. After researching and amassing a great deal of material, it becomes vital to organize your thoughts in some meaningful way. In fact, the hallmark of the best essay is one that establishes a thesis statement at the outset and leads the reader through a logical and sequential argument. While not the only method out there, this is the approach that I have used to draft 1000 word essays as an undergraduate, all the way up to entire book-length manuscripts of 300+ pages as a Ph.D. student. I have also shared this "recipe" with many students over the years taking my courses and have had great feedback about its usefulness and adaptation to a variety of assignments. 

The core principal of the formula is incredibly pragmatic-- you are budgeted a specific amount of words that have to be managed and allocated. By applying a little logic, you can take the mystique out of how written work gets completed by making a common sense plan to engage with the finite limits of your assignment-- just do it. In fact, I firmly believe that 75% of your effort should go into an outline or plan for the paper, and only the remaining last 25% spent actually writing. If you do it the other way around, you will likely find yourself both frustrated and wasting precious time. You will find instead that once you have a solid outline or road map of how to proceed, the paralysis and procrastination many students bring to the writing process recedes (it never fully goes away I am afraid) and you can actually begin to enjoy (gasp!) the process of producing solidly constructed written assignments.

Here is my method or “recipe” adapted to a 2000 word assignment (but can be easily used for assignments of virtually any length) :
  1. Determine the number of words that you are required to produce for the assignment (i.e. @2000 words for this example)
  2. Subtract 200-250 words for an Introduction, and 150 words for a conclusion (this would be more in a paper over 4000 words, but is adequate for a paper of this length). This leaves you with approximately 1600 words for the body of your paper.
  3. Keeping in mind your thesis statement and intended argument, figure out how many topic areas you want to discuss. Here you will also consult the instructions given to you for the essay and make sure each area is also covered somewhere in your outline.
  4. Once you have figured out how many areas you have, divide your remaining 1600 words into that number (i.e. I have chosen 3 themes that work out to about 530 words).
  5. Keeping in mind that most of us write 150-200 word paragraphs, each of your three sections will now have approximately 2-3 paragraphs (you do not have to be completely anal about the numbers, just use as a guideline since you may say slightly more or less in each section).
  6. Once you have established the number of paragraphs for each of your three sections, you can now sketch out your preliminary outline.
  7. Go back to your research and sources and look carefully at your topic question and begin to think about what you will say in each paragraph to discuss your topic and prove your argument (keep track too of where you will raise and discuss works of art if needed). Take notes about which page numbers from your sources you will cite, and at what point in your essay you will raise them. Write these notes directly onto your outline.You may find that through this process that you will have to revise the outline to accommodate your argument, and this is fine. But keep in mind the limitations for space that you must abide by for each section.
  8. Once you are satisfied that you have a good outline, start writing, preferably write one section at a time (one a day over three days in this example). Keep your thesis statement only as your Introduction through this process and importantly, avoid writing the complete Introduction until the end of the process. You will only frustrate yourself and waste time. Chances are that you will only really know what you are arguing in detail once you finish writing (this is really what no one tells you directly).
  9. After finishing the essay draft, write the Introduction. Make sure your thesis statement is clearly stated and describe what you will set out in your argument (think of the Introduction as a movie trailer with the “highlights” of your argument). Do not be afraid to use the first person “I” when writing—in fact, I strongly suggest you do for any written assignment where you are asked to critically assess a topic area.
  10. Your Conclusion should be a statement that summarizes what your main findings were in the essay. It is similar to the Introduction, only you now can make more specific statements about what you actually found in your research. Here, you can also make comments about what you think is most important about your findings, and why you think the topic area should be of interest to readers. 
  11. Read, read, and re-read the essay (both silently and aloud) to make sure your argument and ideas flow from one section to the next. This is where careful editing, planning ahead, and attention to mistakes will pay off in your final mark (who has the time to implement this important step if they are writing the paper the night before it is due?)
  12. Finally, create a great title for the project as the icing on the cake! Great titles invite the reader and distinguish your paper from the rest of the pile-- it might just earn you a few extra marks as well.