Outlining an Academic Paper

Messy DeskListen. I know you may not actually “spend time” on your papers. I know you might just procrastinate, do it the night before it’s due, and get an A. I know this because I did the same thing. However, eventually you’ll get that one professor who KNOWS you did it the night before–and that C on your paper might come as a slap in the face. If you spend the time to do a thorough outline, then I can almost guarantee that you will ALWAYS receive an “A.”

Kelly, I want more grammar, not this outlining nonsense.

In which case I refer you to the Rolling Stones:

You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes, you might find, you get what you need.

Believe it or not, you might need this technique. So many times, students are caught up on grammar, wanting me to proofread their papers and whatnot. You know what happens then? (A) I don’t proofread the paper, and (B) they might not have a thesis, argument, or logically organized paper. So all I’m asking is for you to TRY this out. I didn’t discover this method until my second semester as a Junior in college–hopefully this post will help you out sooner than that.

The Introduction

A good place to start is at the beginning, obviously, and as such, I start at the introduction. For my introduction, I put background material–such as the author, book, important historical background, pertinent plot points–and of course my thesis statement.

So how do I outline it? Something kind of like this:

  1. Introduction (I let myself know what paragraph I’m working on)
  • Author name, book title (or whatever you’re using–poetry, art, science experiments, etc)
  • Necessary historical context (If you’re talking about Canterbury Tales it might be beneficial to say something about Chaucer’s time)
  • Pertinent plot points (Characters that you will be discussing, if there’s a specific area of the text you’re looking at–such as “The Miller’s Tale”)
  • Thesis (I try to write this out in the exact way I will use it in my essay, word-for-word. Changing a few words can make a huge difference on your argument.)

The Body Paragraphs

This is where things get fun–or annoying, depending on your sense of humor. Let me explain how I work when I write an essay. When I’m actually sitting to type an essay, I pretty much want to do as little “extra work” as possible. I’ve seen students try to write an essay while having five books open and whatnot; it just gets messy and complicated. As such, I find my quotations BEFORE I write my essay. I also type my outline. Go ahead, ask me why. It’s so ingenious. When I write my essay, instead of having to write the quotes and citations out, I just copy/paste it directly from my outline. Brilliant, right?

This next part is where I differ from a lot of people. Some people like putting statements into their body paragraphs, like little bullet points. I ask myself open ended questions which I then explore and answer in my essay. The “WH” questions are very helpful here: who, what, where, when, why, how. I also don’t break my body paragraph section into individual paragraphs, but rather topics like “Body Topic 1: ___________” So let’s see how I outline this section.

  1. Body Topic 1: “(Insert topic here)”
  • Open ended questions about topic: “Who did ____?” “Why?” “How did ______ feel or act?” “Why?” “When and where did this happen?” “Why is that important to my thesis?”
  • “Quotation” (citation)
  • Open ended questions/analysis of quotation

Wash, Rinse, and repeat as necessary. If you opt not to use open-ended questions, put your bullet points there instead of questions. Think about how many of these paragraphs are necessary to your paper–if you’re doing a compare and contrast paper, you need a minimum of two (one to compare and one to contrast).


I actually don’t write my conclusion in my outline. Since I use open-ended questions, I’m not 100% certain of where my essay will end up. Furthermore, I just like writing the conclusion in the essay itself–it’s a quirk of mine. If you opt to write it in your conclusion, make sure you do what I said in my shoelaces post: restate the thesis, restate any important author/text, and illustrate what you have just argued briefly.

And…why do you think this works, exactly?

First of all, if you outline your paper well, you won’t need a single book open in front of you. You’ll have all of your quotations out in front of you, you’ll know where you’re going, and where you want to end up. Think of it like going on vacation–if you take the time to plan the trip, the flights, and pack the suitcases ahead of time, when it’s time to do it, all you need to do is go. How many people do you know reserve the hotel, flight, pack the suitcase, and try to leave on the same day? It’s not practical. Same for not preparing for your essay. If you take the time to plan it out first, when you write your essay, all you need to do it write. Plus, since you don’t need to develop your argument, you can focus on the little things like semicolons or affect and effect. 😉

Posted in Academic Advice.


  1. “I know you might just procrastinate, do it the night before it’s due, and get an A.”

    Yup, that’s precisely what I did all through high school and college. 😉

    Great information. I don’t typically write an outline, but I do type quotes before I start the essay so I can copy/paste like you suggested. It’s incredibly helpful.

  2. “However, eventually you’ll get that one professor who KNOWS you did it the night before” — funny you should say that: I was lucky enough to have a prof at university who somehow smelled that I had coasted my way through school and gave me a wake-up call. She told me I could continue coasting through college, get good grades, and nobody would notice or care — or I could apply myself and try to actually learn something and improve myself a great deal more by being a little more mindful.

    Not precisely related to outlining papers, but similar in intent — and ultimate effect. She’s a large part of the reason I actively (instead of passively) enjoyed college.

  3. Yeah, I almost never outline any of my papers and I still do well, so who knows. The only one I know I had to write an outline for was a research paper for art history on anime and the obsession with destruction. I think it all depends on the topic. I can normally write artist statements or museum reviews without one due to having some some of a system already burnt into my brain.

    Still a good write-up, though! I wish I could show this to every horrible writer on campus.

  4. I used to be one of the undergrad students who was happy doing a paper the night before and getting an A. I took a class once where I didn’t buy a single book for the class, didn’t read a single book, completed the essays, and still got an A. Yes, it’s possible.

    However, if you plan on continuing your education like I am, that’s not going to fly. Unfortunately, since bachelor’s degrees have become so NECESSARY to get anywhere in life, they turn out to be a lot like high school. Master’s degrees won’t be like that (especially in fields that have a lot of writing) and most certainly Ph.D.s won’t be like that.

    Late in my junior year I made a transition. I told SO many students how to outline, why to outline, etc., that I figured I’d try it out myself. I stopped just “getting” As and starting “earning” them. While some people don’t care about that at all, to me it made the largest difference in the world. I went from being a Dean’s List student, to a 4.0 student while doing graduate work.

    Much like Ysharros, I, too, learned how to actively enjoy college. I’m a firm believer in “you reap what you sow.” If you put the time and effort into it, you’ll not only see it reflected in your grade but in your confidence.

    Because I learned things like that, I am now confident that, if I so desire, I can actively pursue my Ph.D. and handle writing a 200+ page dissertation on medieval literature!

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