Writing a College Paper Part I: The Initial Outline

Writing a College Paper Part I: The Initial Outline

"Your ten page paper on (insert your least favorite, most challenging subject here) is due in 3 weeks"

We've all been in this position before. Your assigned a paper, small or large, that seems like the hardest thing in the world. What happens next? You procrastinate for 2 weeks then you binge drink coffee for five days trying to finish your assignment, praying you do well. 

It doesn't have to happen like this. 

How to write a college paper: the outline.png

Outlines are wonderful things. If you're feeling overwhelmed by a large paper the first thing you have to do is break it up: 

  • Day 1: Initial Outline
  • Day 2: Research
  • Days 3: Extended Outline to include the research
  • Day 4: REALLY Rough Draft 
  • Day 5: Peer review ( a helpful one, or see a TA )
  • Day 6: Second Draft
  • Day 7: Final Draft 

Today I'll be talking about your initial outline. 

This, to me, is THE most important part of the paper writing process. An initial outline paves the way for the rest of your paper. And it's not hard! you don't have to know any in depth research before you write it! Which is why it's such a good first step. 

When I sit down to write an outline, I like to use a good old fashioned pen and paper, well colored pens and paper. I designate one color for each of my different paragraphs. Typically I use purple for thesis and conclusion, then I break up the rest of the paragraphs with different colors relative to each topic. I strongly suggest hand writing your first outline, then typing it, so you have room to be creative and make a mess at first. 

The first thing I write is my thesis. Everyone always says "never write your introduction paragraph first", but to me, if I don't know what I'm writing about, how can I write the paper? So instead of writing an entire first paragraph I write my thesis statement. 

This is probably the hardest part of an entire paper, for the main reason that this statement is what your whole paper will be based on. So when writing a thesis first think of what it is you want to say. write ten different ones, word it 30 different ways, whatever you need to do to make it seem good to you. 

Once you have a solid thesis statement the rest is easy peasy lemon squeeze-y. I go by the equation (that I made up) that each page should have approximately 2-2.5 paragraphs. So do the math. If you have to write a 10 page paper you need at least 20 paragraphs. Now subtract two for the introductory and conclusion, and you have 18. You have to write 18 body paragraphs. If you only have 2, 3 or even 4 body paragraphs then it's O.K. to have each paragraph be a slightly different topic. But in an 18 paragraph essay multiple paragraphs are going to cover the same topic. I would say only cover a maximum of four or five different topics in a ten page paper. 

Once you discover how many topics you should cover about your thesis statement you're ready to write your outline!! Just jot down a topic sentence and some things you want to cover on the specific topic for each topic. 



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