Writing a strong essay at high school is an important skill, but it can often be hard to know where to start. We often focus on learning content, what we’re going to write about, that we don’t spend as much time learning the skills of how to write. One of the crucial components of this is knowing how to create an essay outline. Starting with a thorough, planned and well-researched outline is the first step to writing an essay — it will guide your ideas, focus your writing and help you to properly unpack the question. Here is some guidance on how to approach this task; follow these tips and you’ll be writing strong essay outlines in no time.
It cannot be stressed enough how important planning is to an essay. The reader can always tell when proper thought has been put in to the structure of the argument, when time has been taken to lay out the points, to consider quotations, supporting evidence, before launching straight into the writing process. It can be tempting to overlook the importance of a plan, especially in a timed exam context; you might think, why waste time planning, the ideas are in my head, surely I should jump in and get something down now? As much as you might want to do this, it is always best to schedule time to plan. If you’ve got an hour to write an essay, make sure fifteen minutes of it is spent planning. That time spent is always worth it; although you might have slightly less time to write, what you do write will be more focused, coherent, and will get you more marks. With a strong plan, your argument will be clear, and you will be able to convince your reader of what you are saying.
Where do you start then, with making this all-important plan? Of course, to a certain extent, it’s true that everyone will have their own way of forming an essay outline; what works for one person might not work for another. It will be a learning process as you figure out exactly how best you make your plans. But there are certain general guidelines to writing such an outline, certain things you want to make sure you include to get you fully ready to start writing.
First, start with the structure. No matter how wildly different the subject matter, no matter the eloquent prose that expresses the arguments, most essays will have the same basic structural form. We can distill this form down into an accessible template to use when constructing our own essays, to give the best vehicle for transmitting an argument. Broadly speaking, your essay will have the following format: introduction, body, conclusion. The body will contain your discussion points, which will explain and defend your argument. There will be at least two points, each of the format: view, explanation plus evidence, criticism, rebuttal and discussion. If you have more space, then you can include more than two points; but remember, it’s always better to go into two points in the proper depth than only be able to cover three more shallowly.
So our structure will look as follows:
— point one
— point two
This is the structure you want to start with at the beginning of an essay outline. Write it out on a piece of paper, then begin to flesh out the details. How you do so will vary somewhat between the subject and style of question, but this structure will still apply. In your introduction, you say what you’re going to say. Then you explain this view at the beginning of your first point, giving your first evidence for it; you raise a potential criticism, showing that you’re considering the argument from all angles; then you resolve the criticism and consider its implications, giving stronger support for your view. You do this for each point, and then in your conclusion, you wrap up by summarizing what you’ve said, and raise any interesting further questions. Say what you’re going to say, say it, then say what you’ve said. This is the basic structure of an essay.
So first, we start an essay outline by applying this structure to our question. If it’s a compare and contrast literature question, we choose two main excerpts for points one and two, and then analyze what they show If it’s a science subject, then each point will present a view, the supporting evidence, and then analyze opposing interpretations. A philosophy, or any discursive essay, will offer a view, cover the potential objections, and respond to them. Fitting it into this structure will give you a nice cohesive argument.
So how do we formulate the argument of our essay? Where is the best place to start? The crucial first step is to consider the question in full-depth. Unpack it; on a piece of paper, sketch out all the aspects of the topic you’re studying that it hints at; think about the evidence you could use related to it, the ideas it might be sparking. It’s up to you to interpret the question and to answer it specifically; if you start your essay by showing what you understand by the question, what you are taking it to mean, and then you respond to it directly, then no one can say you didn’t answer the question properly. Your answer will be pertinent and focused. Start by defining your question, and define any relevant terms you need to answer it. In doing so, you will pull out the argument you wish to make.
From here, you want to sketch out the exact pieces of evidence you’re going to include in your essay, the secondary literature, the excerpts from novels, the data, whatever it might be. Think of the views you want to consider, and the ones of your own you wish to put forward. Start to fit these into the structure we discussed above. By now you’ll have an idea of the overall argument you want to put forward. Fleshing it out with direct pieces of evidence now will give you the shape of the body of your essay, and will mean you are well on your way to getting started writing. In selecting these, make a note of potential interpretations, criticisms, and how you might respond to these.
With your well-defined question, and your outline of evidence, with criticisms and rebuttals of this, the plan of the body of your essay will be complete. You can now outline your introduction, and conclusion; it is often easier to do this after the body is fully worked out. Here you can now state the overall argument you will be putting forward, and why you support it. Some people like to write their introductions and conclusions after the rest of the essay, but it’s good to at least include a few points in your outline of what you’ll say here.
You’ll now have a full-fledged outline and you’ll be ready to write! With this preparation done, you can start writing; don’t be afraid to launch in. Despite the emphasis I’ve placed on planning here, it is possible to overplan; you don’t want to get stuck in this phase, worried about how to actually get words down. When you feel your argument is mostly together, it’s time to get some words down on the page. It’ll feel much better when you do — your essay will be taking shape! Remember that the exact details and structure will change as you write; you want to be flexible, and not constrain yourself too much by trying to plan everything. An outline is just that; an outline, a guideline to helping you write the rest; it can be rough, and not exact.
Follow these steps and your outlines will be strong and focused, and your essays will start to flow more and more naturally onto the page. There’s a few steps here, but don’t let that daunt you: every time you make such an outline, it will become easier, and soon they’ll be second nature. If you can develop this crucial skill well now, you’ll find it hugely rewarding throughout your academic life.