How to Write an Outline for an Essay
Essays are used to express ideas or opinions about a particular subject matter. It’s among the first tasks introduced to students at the primary levels of education. It’s also one of the widely accepted forms of assessing students that cut across most academic disciplines, especially in college. Schools and even places of employment might also require an essay from an applicant before considering them.
The silver lining is that many students have a working knowledge of how to write an essay and its structure composition, which usually includes an introduction, body, and a concluding paragraph. Still, the average student spends more than the necessary number of hours on a single task because they run out of ideas or lose their train of thought. Even the overall content of the paper suffers. That can be avoided by penning down a detailed outline before writing the first draft. Did you know even seasoned bestsellers writers do this? So what’s an outline, how does it improve your essays, and how do you write it? We are answering all these questions in our guide.
Outline Format and Definition
An essay outline is a road map, a blueprint that helps writers organize their papers. Research papers and dissertations often have a table of contents — it’s something similar. On some level, most students create it without even realizing it, and that’s why it’s easy to learn how to write one. For instance, everyone researches and brainstorms for ideas before writing. Except that most students don’t put their thoughts in order before proceeding, and even if they do, it’s not enough to be an outline.
If writing an outline isn’t a task that you must submit for a grade, then it’s up to you how you format it. However, you should follow four main principles when creating a plan for your academic writing:
Tips for creating an effective blog post outline
The main body of your blog post is where you’ll expand on your ideas and provide evidence or examples to support them. This is the meat of your article, so make sure to take your time developing each point.
Your conclusion should summarize the main points of your article and leave readers with a strong call to action. This is the last thing people will read, so make sure it’s impactful!
Call to action
A call to action (CTA) is a final prompt that encourages readers to take a specific next step. This could be signing up for your newsletter, visiting your website, or downloading a white paper.
If you want to provide readers with more information on the topic of your blog post, you can include further reading or resources at the end. These could be links to other articles, books, or websites.
Part I: Introduction to Op-Eds
Well, let’s start with editorials. Editorials are columns written by a member of a publication’s board or editors, and they are meant to represent the view of the publication. While reporting has the main purpose of informing the public, editorials can serve a large number of purposes. But typically editorials aim to persuade an audience on a controversial issue.
Op-eds, on the other hand, are “opposite the editorial” page columns. They began as a way for an author to present an opinion that opposed the one on the editorial board. Note that an op-ed is different than a letter to the editor, which is when someone writes a note to complain about an article, and that note is published. Think of a letter to the editor as an old, more stodgy form of the comments section of an article.
The New York Times produced the first modern op-ed in 1970, and over time, op-eds became a way for people to simply express their opinions in the media. They tend to be written by experts, observers, or someone who is passionate about a topic, and as media in general becomes more partisan, op-eds have become more and more common.
Many op-eds fail because they just summarize key details. But, wrong or right, op-eds need to advance a strong contention. They need to assert something, and the first step is to write down your argument.
How to write. So you have yourself an argument. It’s now time to write the op-ed. When it comes to writing, this guide assumes a decent command of the English language; we’re not going to cover the basics of nouns and verbs. However, keep in mind a few things:
- Blogs, op-eds and columns are short. Less than 1,000 words. Usually between 500 and 700 words. Many blogs are just a few hundred words, basically a few graphs and a pull quote often does the job.
- Simplicity, logic, and clarity are your best friends when it comes to writing op-eds and blogs. In other words, write like a middle schooler. Use short sentence and clear words. Paragraphs should be less than four sentences. Please take a look at Strunk and White for more information. I used to work with John Podesta, who has written many great op-eds, and he was rumored to have given his staff a copy of Strunk and White on their first day of employment.
- Love yourself topic sentences. The first sentence of each paragraph needs to be strong, and your topic sentences should give an overall idea of what’s to follow. In other words, a reader should be able to grasp what your article’s argument by reading the first sentence of each paragraph.
How to make an argument. This guide is not for reporters or news writers. That’s journalism. This guide is for people who make arguments. So keep in mind the following:
- Evidence. This might be obvious, but you need evidence to support your argument. This means data in the forms of published studies, government statistics, anything that offers cold facts. Stories are good and can support your argument. But try and go beyond a good anecdote.
- Tone. Check out the bloggers and columnists that are in the publications that you’re aiming for, and try to emulate them when it comes to their argumentative tone. Is their tone critical? Humorous? Breezy? Your tone largely hinges on what type of outlet you are writing for, which brings us to…
- Audience. Almost everything in your article — from what type of language you use to your tone — depends on your audience. A piece for a children’s magazine is going to read differently than, say, an op-ed in the Washington Post. The best way to familiarize yourself with your audience is to read pieces that have already been published in the outlet you are writing for, or hoping to write for. Take note of how the author presents her argument and then adjust yours accordingly.
Sidebar: Advice vs Argument. Offering advice in the form of a how-to article — like what you’re reading right now — is different than putting forth an argument in an actual op-ed piece.
That said, advice pieces, like this one by Lifehacker or this one by Hubspot, follow much of the same ABC formula. For instance, advice pieces will still often begin with an attention-grabbing opener and contextualize their subject matter.
However, instead of trying to make an argument in the body of the article, the advice pieces will typically list five to ten ways of “how to do” something. For example, “How to cook chicken quesadillas” or “How to ask someone out on a date.”
The primary purpose of an advice piece is to inform rather than to convince. In other words, advice pieces describe what you could do, while op-ed pieces show us what we should do.
Part II: Dissecting The ABC Approach
- Attention (sometimes called the lede): Here’s your chance to grab the reader’s attention. The opening of an opinion piece should bring the reader into the article quickly. This is also sometimes referred to as the flash or the lede, and there are two types of flash introductions. They are:
Option 1. Narrative flash. A narrative flash is a story that brings readers into the article. It should be some sort of narrative hook that grabs attention and entices the reader to delve further into the piece. A brief and descriptive anecdote often works well as a narrative flash. It simultaneously catches the reader’s attention and hints at the weightier argument and evidence yet to come.
Ben Line didn’t think the assistant principal had the strength or the gumption. But he was wrong. The 13-year-old alleges that the educator hit him twice with a paddle in January, so hard it left scarlet lines across his buttocks. Ben’s crime? He says he talked back to a teacher in class, calling a math problem “dumb.”
Option 2. News flash. Some pieces — especially those tied to the news — can have a lede without a narrative start. Other pieces, including many op-eds, are simply too short to begin with a narrative flash. In either of these instances, using the news flash as your lede is likely your best bet.
The Smith sisters exemplify a disturbing trend. Research indicates that violence between siblings—defined as the physical, emotional or sexual abuse of one sibling by another, and ranging from mild to highly violent—is likely more common than child abuse by parents. In fact, a new report from the University of Michigan Health System indicates the most violent members of American families are indeed the children. Data suggests that three out of 100 children are considered dangerously violent toward a brother or sister, and nine-year-old Kayla Smith is one of those victims: “My sister used to get mad and hit me every once in awhile, but now it happens at least twice a week. She just goes crazy sometimes. She’s broken my nose, kicked out two teeth and dislocated my shoulder.”
The unpack section often starts with a sentence like: There’s a long history to this idea. So, for instance, the paddling story might have had a topic sentence for the unpack graph that goes: There’s a long history to paddling.
“To give some context: On Oct. 7, 2016, WikiLeaks began leaking emails from my personal inbox that had been hacked by Russian intelligence operatives. A few days earlier, Stone — a longtime Republican operative and close confidant of then-candidate Donald Trump — had mysteriously predicted that the organization would reveal damaging information about the Clinton campaign. And weeks before that, he’d even tweeted: ‘Trust me, it will soon [be] Podesta’s time in the barrel.’”
If you’re writing an advice piece, then similar advice applies. A how-to guide for Photoshop, for example, might include recent changes to the program and information on the many ways that Photoshop can be used to edit pictures.
The problem with corporal punishment, Straus stresses, is that it has lasting effects that include increased aggression and social difficulties. Specifically, Straus studied more than 800 mothers over a period from 1988 to 1992 and found that children who were spanked were more rebellious after four years, even after controlling for their initial behaviors. Groups that advocate for children, like the American Academy of Pediatrics and the National Education Association, oppose the practice in schools for those reasons.
While narrative can be vital when capturing a reader’s attention, it’s equally important to offer hard facts in the evidence section. When demonstrating the details of your argument, be sure to present accurate facts from reputable sources. Studies published in established journals are a good source of evidence, for instance, but blogs with unverified claims are not.
Also, when providing supporting details, you should think about using what the Ancient Greeks called ethos, pathos and logos. To explain, ethos refers to appeals based on your own credibility, that you’re someone worth listening too. For example, if you are arguing why steroids should be banned in baseball, you might talk about how you once used steroids and their terrible impact on your health.
Pathos refers to using evidence that plays to the emotions. For example, if you are trying to show why people should evacuate during hurricanes, you might describe a family who lost their seven-year-old child during a hurricane.
Logos refers to logical statements, typically based off facts and statistics. For example, if you are trying to convince the audience why they should join the military when they are young, provide statistics of their income when they retire and the benefits they receive while in the military.