Organizing and Outlining

Before you begin to write the paragraphs of your paper, try to organize your ideas. Start by considering how much flexibility you have. Look at the assignment’s wording, ask classmates, ask your instructor, or reread any material covered in class about organization. Instructors often expect writers to use a particular organizing pattern or structure. Sometimes, they are direct about this expectation by using certain “tip off” words: arrange, develop, form, format, method of development, mode, order, organize, pattern, scheme, shape, or structure.

Your writing instructor may name the type of writing you are to do (such as a business letter, a lab report, or a book review) and expect you to use the organization associated with this genre. If so, try to locate examples of these types of writing to follow the format. Writing samples may be found in your text book, in the campus writing center, in the library, or on your instructor’s Web site.

Most common assignments require you to organize your writing in whatever way best suits your purpose, audience, and topic. In a personal narrative, you might present events in chronological (time) order. In an informative essay, you might explain a process by proceeding through the steps in the process. Or, you might develop a persuasive essay by presenting a problem followed by a solution. No matter what the assignment, you can think further about your organization by writing an informal outline.

Even if your instructor requires you to create a formal outline, you can start by developing an informal outline that focuses on ideas, not technical details. Think of it as the barebones sketch or skeleton that will eventually support more details and a more fleshed out draft.

Using your thesis as a guide, and always keeping your topic, purpose, and audience in mind, begin organizing your ideas into an informal outline showing main ideas backed up by supporting details. Here is an example of how one writer drafted her initial informal outline.

Outline Section Example
Thesis Statement: The company should provide tuition reimbursement.
Main idea #1: Good use of money
supporting detail: - offsets advertising, recruiting, training costs
supporting detail: - attracts quality job candidates
Main idea #2 Builds employee confidence and job satisfaction
supporting detail - helps employees build job-relevant skills
supporting detail - increased job satisfaction = low turnover
Main idea #3 Enhances internal training function
supporting detail - employee education strengthened
supporting detail - training staff freed from some training

Remember to think of an outline as a tentative plan for arranging your ideas. On it, you can use question marks, bullets, indentation, or numbered lists to remind you where you have questions or to indicate which ideas are more important than others. Don’t obsess over making your outline look neat and orderly unless it is a formal outline to be turned in to your instructor. Your main goal in this stage is to organize your information and see how your ideas connect.