Why Do I Have to Outline? (And Other Tips for Starting Your Essay)

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By Lindsay Zafir

Originally published: September 19, 2019


Have you ever gotten halfway through a writing assignment, only to realize you have no idea what you’re saying or if you’re even addressing the topic? Yeah, us too. 

That’s why one of the first assignments you’re likely to get this year is the dreaded paper outline. 

Outlines might seem like busy work engineered by teachers for the sole purpose of ruining the last warm weekends of the year. But they’re actually a critical step in the writing process. And they can be pretty helpful too. 

Today, I want to talk about why outlines actually do matter—and we’ll review some other ways you can start writing if you find yourself staring at a blank screen. 

Your outline is a road map to your essay. It’s probably the hardest step in the writing process, because it forces you to narrow down your ideas, come up with relevant examples and evidence, and start to organize all of this into a coherent essay. But once you’ve done it, sitting down to write your essay will be so much easier because you already know what you want to say. 

While outlining is an important step when you start writing, it’s hardly the only step. Free writing is a great way to get your ideas on paper before you even begin your outline. The idea is pretty simple: just start writing! Put down anything that comes to mind. Don’t censor yourself, and don’t worry about how good it sounds. This is a chance for you to start thinking, and no else ever needs to see it. Think of it like a journal for your paper. 

When you’re done, take a break. Then read over your free writing with fresh eyes. Which themes stick out at you? Which ideas do you find most interesting? These are the seeds of your essay. 

Next, start to brainstorm the concrete topics that exemplify these themes. Make a list with everything that comes to mind, in whatever order you think of it. Later, go back through the list and group your examples according to topic. You’re already starting to build your outline. 

As important as your outline is to help you organize your thoughts and structure your paper, its main purpose is to help YOU. That means you don’t have to follow it to a T. When you sit down to start writing, try starting with whichever paragraph you are most excited about—even if it’s in the middle of your essay. Because you have your outline, you’re less likely to get lost in a tangent, so you can play around more when you’re actually writing. 

If you find that you want to change directions as you write, that’s okay! In fact, it’s probably a good thing because it means your ideas are developing as you go. Just be sure to go back and revise your outline. Be flexible, but make sure you always have a plan. 

Happy writing!