A beginner's guide to outlining

When writing, it can often be difficult to know where to begin. As busy college students, we often sit down to write a paper and have no idea what we want to say, much less how to say it. This can have many negative effects on the final draft of your paper; it can cause repetitiveness and lack of clarity. Not knowing how to start a paper can also cause you to wait until the last minute to start because you are overwhelmed. The solution? Make an action plan. Outlining your paper first is one of the best ways to avoid overwhelm and get started on your paper.

Almost every writer who has been through high school has heard of the basic five-paragraph essay. An outline for this type of essay looks like this:

  1. Intro

  2. Body Paragraph 1

  3. Body Paragraph 2

  4. Body Paragraph 3

  5. Conclusion

Thankfully, they teach us this style of essay writing for a reason. This form of writing often provides a place to start when writing a large pieces, even ten-page papers.

(However, when writing longer papers, you'll likely need more than five paragraphs. It is important to remember that you can write multiple paragraphs for one point. You can alter the outline for the five-paragraph essay by planning for three main ideasinstead of three body paragraphs. Don't let yourself get stuck in the five-paragraph format if it doesn't suit your paper!)

There are certain items that apply to every outline:


The introduction should include terms that need to be defined and background information that is important throughout the piece. You should also be sure to include your thesis statement in this paragraph.


Your thesis is one of the most important details of your paper. It sets up the theme for your entire document and communicates to the reader what you will be arguing or discussing in your essay. Make sure the thesis is easily identifiable. The thesis statement is not a place for fluff and fancy language. 

Remember: your thesis must be arguable. That means your reader must be able to look at your thesis and say "yes, I agree!" or "No, I think that's wrong." The rest of your paper is working to prove your thesis.

Main Points

When developing an outline, you should divide your outline into your main ideas. I often try to have three main ideas. This does not mean though you must stick to three paragraphs; each idea can have many paragraphs–however many paragraphs are needed to get the point across (usually no more than three).

When I am crafting an outline (especially for a research paper) I will first annotate my documents using a different color highlighter for each of my main points. I will then take all of the parts I highlighted and organize them into my introduction, the main idea the information relates to, or the conclusion. This gives me a visual roadmap of what information I would like to use throughout the paper and where the information will go. I don't often end up directly quoting all this information, but forming an argument is easier when I can see my supporting facts. 


In your outline, your conclusion won't be lengthy. You shouldn’t state any new information in the conclusion. Just be sure to restate your argument and sum up your thoughts in this paragraph.