Have you ever sat down to write a paper and had no idea where to begin or where you were going? Writing college-level papers can be intimidating and if you’re not careful, you may end up aimlessly wandering from one topic to the next as you write your way to the conclusion. In my experience, the easiest way to get started is to already have the end in sight before you begin – the best way to do this is to take the time to brainstorm and create an outline.
As boring as an outline may seem, it gets all of the hard work out of the way at the beginning and sets you up for success in structuring your paper. Here are a few questions you can ask yourself (or your tutee, if you’re helping someone else) in the brainstorming stage of writing:
- What is my professor asking for?
- What style of writing is required? Summary, analysis, persuasive, expository?
- What are the other criteria? Are there secondary sources to include? Length requirements?
- Where do I stand on the topic/text I’m being required (or choosing) to write about?
- How do my secondary sources support or refute these thoughts?
Crafting your thesis statement is arguably the most important part of the writing process—without it your paper will lack clarity and direction. After you’ve created a thesis statement that communicates the purpose of your paper, you can create bullet points for your main ideas – these are the ideas that will support your thesis and guide your writing of each individual paragraph. A few guiding questions for main ideas:
- Does this pertain to my thesis? Does it support it?
- What sections/statements of my secondary sources support this idea?
- How many main ideas do I need to elaborate on to and properly cover the topic of my thesis and make my paper the required length?
Write out your main ideas as phrases or single sentences and arrange them in a way that makes sense. This will help your writing to progress in a natural flow. Now, all you have to do is elaborate on each idea, using the secondary source quotes that you’ve already picked out and making sure to tie each idea back to your thesis or purpose for writing!
As a tutor, students generally come in having skipped this process and wielding an already-written paper from whatever ideas came to their mind as they sat at their keyboard. The good news is, this same method can be used to evaluate the flow of a rough draft as well. All you have to do is summarize the main idea of each paragraph in an outline and rearrange them until they make the most sense (for students who tend to get off topic and rant as they write, this is also a great way to see which rabbit trails can be deleted and which ideas they presented in their thesis that they never got to!)
Not everybody is a planner, and not everyone thinks best in terms of outlines, but a lot of hard work in the planning process can save writers a lot of time and frustration in the writing and review stage and generally makes for a clear, well-organized presentation of ideas.