How to brainstorm and outline your essay

Written by: academicwriter

30 May 2010

Before you start writing your paper, it's very important to brainstorm all ideas that you have or have gathered on your topic, to understand what structure and logic your work should have. Some of the tools you can employ is prewriting - simply sitting down and starting to write every idea that comes to your mind with regards to your paper topic, and webbing - creating a web of ideas and suggestions, connected to the main topic of your writing. First, you coonect basic ideas to your topic, and all the examples or explanations of these ideas are connected to them, in turn.

A Flow Chart

Another tool for organizing your ideas visually is a flow chart, which is sort of like a family tree. Instead of putting your central idea in the middle of the page and branching out from there, in a flow chart, you write your central idea at the top of the page and connect your support and examples in a downward “flow” from there.
If your topic is "Why science is my favorite class at school", you put it at the top of the page. From here, down go your reasons: "it relates to life", "good teacher" and "class is fun". From these boxes, your provide clarification and examples of your reasons. For instance, "good teacher" makes things clear and answers questions.

Why science is my favorite class in school is the central idea of the essay, and
Relates to life, Good teacher, and Class is fun are all reasons why it is my favorite
class. On the third level of the chart, you see two examples for each reason. Whether you use a web or a flow chart, the key is to organize. Maybe you’re a list maker, so just making a list of all your supporting ideas and examples works better for you. Go ahead. Do that. No one is going to see any of this prewriting. It’s just for you. Do whatever you can to get your ideas down on paper so that you can see your central idea, support, and examples in an organized way. The goal is to know what the components of your essay will be and in what order you will use them.

Editing Your Ideas

Okay, so now you’ve brainstormed ideas and organized all the jumbled mess that came out of your brain into some sort of web or flow chart. Here is where the editing comes in. While there’s no doubt you’ve come up with some fabulous ideas for your essay, you’ve probably also thought of some clunkers. We need to weed out the clunkers. The easiest way to do this is to go back over your web or flow chart with a highlighter and highlight all the best ideas, best support, and best examples. Don’t have a highlighter? Just circle them.
Now you may be asking, “How do I know which ideas are fabulous and which are clunkers?” Here are some questions to ask yourself when you’re doing your weeding, to help you separate the two.

  • Does the idea have enough examples to fill at least a paragraph of writing?
  • Does the idea truly support the essay’s central idea?
  • Will I get off track when I start writing about this idea?
  • Are my supporting ideas different enough from one another, while still all supporting my thesis?
  • Do I have enough to say about this idea?


Before You Outline

You’ve gone back over your web or chart and highlighted or circled all of your wonderful ideas. So now you know which ideas you’re going to use in your essay. That’s really all you need to make an outline. An outline is just the next step in organizing your essay.

General Format

Now that we’re getting to be master organizers, it’s time for the final step in
the organizational process: the outline. Don’t be afraid of the outline. It’s really quite easy. Here is the general format.

Plugging in Your Ideas

To make your outline, all you need to do is plug in your ideas. Your more general supporting ideas or themes go next to the Roman numerals, and then each level gets more specific. Following is an example. As you can see, not all As are followed by a secondary level, and the same holds true with Bs. Some essays will be more involved and need more detailed outlines. Some will be fairly straightforward and not require as many levels of information.

Just think, general to specific. The topic of the previous outline is Reasons the new town park is a good idea. The ideas next to the Roman numerals are the reasons. In this case, there are three: It will be a safe place for kids to play, it will preserve some open space, and it will provide opportunities for sports. As the outline gets more specific, we can see howit will be safe for kids and why preserving the open space is good and what kinds of sports will be played there. The outline lets us see how everything fits together in support of the topic.
There is one rule to remember when creating an outline. If you have a I, you have to have a II, and if you have an A, you have to have a B, and if you have a 1, you have to have a… well, you get the idea.

When Your Outline Is Complete

When you’ve finished your outline, look it over and make sure that your major points are addressed and that each point has sufficient support. Think of your supporting ideas as beams holding up the bridge that is your main idea. Without the support, your bridge will crumble.


Hi, my name is Greg Palanek. In this blog I am going to unleash the mystery of academic writing through howto-like blog posts that would contain college writing basics, tips, and tricks. Why? Because I believe college life is much more than boring classes and endless paper writing.

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