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SPARK: Outlines

A resource for students wanting to improve their academic and research skills.


Outlining is one of several techniques for organizing your main points, examples, evidence and background information into a coherent structure. Most word processing software has outlining features that make it easy to draft and revise an outline as you write.

Some writers begin writing with a simple list of points. They gradually supplement and reorganize this list as they write to develop a working thesis and emphasize connections among their points. Other writers draft sentences and paragraphs from the beginning and use the cut and paste features of their word processing software to organize their material as they work.

Concept mapping is another technique that some find useful for developing and structuring ideas. A discussion of this technique can be found in the Gathering & Noting Ideas module. 

Outlining and concept mapping can help you structure your essay in a way that shows the relationship among your ideas and leads your reader through them clearly, rather than presenting them as a set of unrelated facts.

Listing - Only a Beginning

As you begin to write an essay, it can be helpful to make a list of ideas you wish to address in the essay, but the final essay must be more than a listing of ideas about your topic. If you are feeling overwhelmed by the task of managing all the different components of the essay writing process, it is easy to lose track of larger purposes and just record the facts collected in your library research. This form of writing looks much like a grocery list (see below) and should be avoided as it leaves the reader with little sense of how your  ideas are connected to each other or to any central thesis.

Grocery List Essay on John Dewey

John Dewey was an important American philosopher of education. He was a pragmatist philosopher. He was also a psychologist. At the University of Chicago he set up a laboratory school to show students how to apply his ideas. He lived a very long life and was very influential in making schools more progressive. Dewey thought it was important that teachers create lessons based on their students’ interests. The primary thing Dewey thought students should learn in school was reflection. Dewey was very impressed by the obvious benefits of following the scientific method. He had a very strong opinion…. and numerous additional unorganized, undeveloped facts about Dewey.

A list can be used to begin the process of generating more organized ideas through brainstorming, nutshelling and other forms of starting techniques.