Papers: How to outline

In your template, you already outlined some of your paper. Now it’s time to figure out what type of paper you’re going to write, what type of outline you need, and how you’ll fit your research into it.

If your professor gives an outline, stick with that. In that case, your professor’s done your work for you on this one. Often, your professor won’t explicitly give the outline but will instead offer some specific questions your paper must answer or points it should address. If that’s the case, use those as your structure. Nothing screams, “I did what you told me,” like titling the sections in your paper with the exact questions your professor asked you to answer. It’s my favorite way, at least.

If you don’t get this much help, you have to go about it another way. You have to make up your own questions.

If that’s the case, I start with one of these general outlines (notice that each of them include an Introduction, a Conclusion, and a Bibliography – the different kinds of papers really just change up the middle, body text):

  • Science Investigation:  Introduction >> Review of literature >> Research methodology >> Data analysis / Discussion >> Conclusion >> Bibliography. If you’re actually supposed to do some research, this is the one to use. It makes it look like you’re actually doing some research.
  • Dueling Philosophers: Introduction >> Position #1 >> Position #2 >> Comparison of the two views >> Conclusion >> Bibliography: I loved this one in philosophy. I’d choose two philosophers, outline their ideas separately, and then show how they either could be combined in an interesting way or why they couldn’t be combined and as a result why one of the positions is better.
  • Making a Case: Introduction >> Argument/Hypothesis >> Supporting reason #1 >> Supporting reason #2 >> Objection plus reason to overcome that objection >> Conclusion >> Bibliography. If you’re supposed to take a position on a given issue, you’re probably going to run with something like this. You can expand it to include more reasons, more objections with ways to overcome those objections, and so on.
  • History of Whatever: Introduction >> Background (Past) >> Event (Present) >> Consequences (Future) >> Conclusion >> Bibliography. Pretty much any history paper or any paper dealing with historical events can work with this. Talk about why it happened (past), how it happened (present), and what happened or might happen next as a result (future).
  • Topical DIY Outline: Introduction >> Section 1 >> Section 2 >> Section 3 >> Conclusion >> Bibliography. This is the same as the template you created. In this case, you can’t fit your topic into any of the more specific outlines, so you just start with what you have, the topic, and come up with three other sub-topics to include. For instance, say you’re supposed to write about the life of a 10th Century Musician. That’s your topic. Your subtopics could be, say, Education & Training, Family & Social Life, and Festivals & Performances – whatever your research seems to turn up.

Based on the instructions for your paper, you should be able to use one of these or a variation or combination of them. Now this probably sounds a lot more difficult than it actually is. Actually, you just need to choose the one that best applies, and move on.

Once you have your overall outline, though, you can start asking questions. The questions can serve as subsections within each main section.

I usually shoot for a minimum of three of these subsections, which means three questions for each. I can’t actually give you the questions for whatever paper you need to write because these questions have to be more topic specific. The best I think I can help you here is to run an example.

Let’s say you’re working on that paper on 10th Century Musicians. And let’s say you’re going with that outline I mentioned earlier for this paper. Here are some questions I might consider for each of the main sections in body of the paper:

Education & Training

  • Do 10th century musicians go to school or band camps or something? Where? Who teaches them? Do they learn together, with their peers, or do they learn just from accomplished musicians, maybe the ones who’ve already retired?
  • How do 10th century musicians decide to become musicians? Is it a career passed down through generations, inherited as a result of a specific social class, or chosen for its expressive qualities (or some other way)?
  • Do the musicians typically play multiple instruments, or is it more common just to focus on one?
  • How do they choose which instruments to play? Do they have to make their own at this point in time, or did they purchase them somewhere? If they made the instruments themselves, who taught them this?

Family & Social Life

  • Do they travel? If so, do they travel in groups with other musicians or performers, or do they travel alone? For that matter, how do they travel, just walking or what?
  • Do they typically have lots of friends as a result of all their travels, or do they have trouble making friends because they don’t visit the same places frequently enough? Or if they don’t travel, who are their friends?
  • Do they have families? Typically large or small, if at all?
  • How much money to do they make (how much by today’s standards)? How are they viewed in society? Is it a respected profession?
  • Where do they stay? What do they eat?
  • As entertainers, do they have more access to influential people than others in their general social class? In other words, since they are performers and as a result might get to perform for some of the wealthier people in society, do they get any special privileges because of their social network?

Festivals & Performances

  • Where do these musicians perform? How do they find them or get hired? Do they get hired ahead of time, or just collect money in a hat or something?
  • How often do they perform at these kinds of festivals? Is there a particular time of year when these festivals usually occur, like around harvest time? If so, how do they decide which ones to attend? Can anyone play at any of the festivals at any time, or do they have to be booked or something?
  • Do the musicians perform in groups? Do they practice with their fellow band members? Are popular songs memorized and played basically the same way all over the place, or does musicians each have their own songs? Do they improve much?

Perhaps giving this many example questions is overkill. As a casual reader, it certainly is. I’m hoping, though, that if anyone remembers to read through this while actually trying to work up a paper, they can use some of these questions as models, just replacing the key words with key words that fit their topic.

In any case, realize here that this process of coming up with questions isn’t a one-way deal. It’s two-way. It’s not like you sit down and figure out all these questions in one go. It’s more like you look through your research, figure out what you might be able to include, look back at your outline to figure out where to include it, look through your paper again after adding info to see if you can spot any gaps, ask questions to fill those gaps, go back to your research to see if you can answer the questions to fill those gaps, scan through your research again to see if any of it can provoke any ideas for more questions, check the research again to see if you can answer those provoked questions with the research, and repeat this again and again and again until you fill up the body of your paper.

Crazy, but that’s pretty much how it goes.

I don’t always write out a whole bunch of questions. Sometimes, I just keep them in the back of my mind. Often, though, I find it helpful to write out as a many as I can without having to pause too long. As a general rule, the longer the paper, the more structure I like to have going into it.

Once I have an idea about the main sections and begin filling in some of the subsections, like with these kinds of questions, I then start to break up how many pages or paragraphs I’ll need to write on each of them. I usually type this right into the headings in the outline. This way, I know how long each section needs to be in order to meet my quota. And if I start going long in one section, I know I can either stop expanding that section at that point or cut down a different one.

Besides just being able to see the overall arc of the paper from the start, perhaps the greatest benefit of a strong outline is that it lets you begin writing wherever you want.

I try to start with whatever seems the easiest to write. That way, as I get into it more, if I find, like I said before, that I have more info in a certain section than I thought I’d have, I can just run with it and cut out a different section, maybe a section that would be really hard to write.

One of the biggest helps through any of this is to remember to start. Don’t put things off. Don’t keep researching. Don’t spend a ton of time. Start the work. Then start the next part. Then the next part. The outline helps keep this in perspective.

I’ll get to the details of writing the Introduction and the Conclusion later, along with even more joyful tips for filling the gaps between those sections. For now, this is how to get the outline going.

It seems like a lot, but really it’s just a formula to follow. This whole outline part of the process should take less than 20 minutes.

Set a clock.

Then pick one of the general outlines I suggested. And once you do, stick with it. Then ask some questions. Then answer the questions with your research. Get to filling in the gaps.