Writing a College Paper Step-by-Step: The Value of Outlining SEE BELOW FOR PROPER CITATION

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1 Writing a College Paper Step-by-Step: The Value of Outlining SEE BELOW FOR PROPER CITATION Writing an Outline Many college students are confused about the many elements utilized in the writing process and when (and how) to use them, particularly with regard to the paper outline. Most students resist both the idea of, as well as their professor s requirement to compose outlines as part of their writing process. This is possibly the result of students understanding about the purpose for, and value of, well written outlines and their role in writing. A good outline is an integral first step in composition. Whether a writer composes an essay, article, report, or book, and regardless of the writer s individual writing style, good writing, more often than not, begins with a detailed outline. What is an Outline? An outline helps writers organize their thoughts into a rational stream of ideas that any reader can follow and understand in order to grasp the writer s point-of-view on a topic or topics for which the writer has research and about which the writer presents her or his findings. Purpose for Writing Outlines The central purpose for the outline is to organize thoughts and ideas. Rarely is it a good idea to approach a writing project by sitting down at a computer keyboard and beginning to type, yet, this is the approach of most students. An outline can bridge the gap between the thought process and the written words on the page. Outlining with a Purpose in Mind Writing a detailed outline as the first process in writing a paper avoids the stress involved in determining the rational sequence of thoughts and ideas that best serve the reader. This process assists writers in illuminating the strengths and weaknesses in an argument before the paper is completed. Writing from an outline assures that what s composed contains at least these seven important elements: 1. Introduction: offers important background information about your topic 2. Thesis Statement: clearly states your argument 3. Organizational Statement: presents your sources and your method of using them to prove your argument 4. Topic Sentences: further illustrate the details of your thesis statement 5. Transitional Sentences: connect individual paragraph topics to each other 6. Source Quotations and Paraphrases: offer both support and credibility for your argument 7. Conclusion: provides a synopsis of your argument and how you arrived at the results of your research

2 2 Step 1 Be sure the paper topic is clearly understood. Any good article or paper has an excellent introduction that informs readers about exactly what topic the text will cover, the argument being made, and the methods used to document the credibility of the argument. When the topic is provided by your professor be sure to pose any questions to him or her at the time the topic is assigned. If the topic is one of your choosing, be sure that the thesis statement is composed at the close of researching your hypothesis, rather than at the beginning. Read more about his point in Step 2 below. Step 2 Formulate a single sentence thesis statement using the language of the topic, meaning, use the terminology, i.e. keywords, typically used in discussing the topic (discourse), which assures clarity on the subject. The thesis is not a question, but rather an answer, a statement of position about where the author stands on a given topic. As authors enter the actual writing stage, the thesis statement announces to the reader exactly what is stated in the author s text. It is important to remember that thesis statements change with expanded research; therefore, be sure that you adjust your thesis statement to correspond to the research, rather than conducting research with the hope of conforming it to your thesis statement. Step 3 An organizational statement informs readers how and why the writer has selected the sources they have used to make their argument. Step 4 Thesis questions should ask How or In what way? The thesis questions do not appear in the paper, but they are a crucial step in developing topic sentences when composing your outline. Step 5 By answering the thesis questions in complete sentences authors are simultaneously writing their topic sentences. They should answer thesis questions at least three times, using each answer as a topic sentence for a single paragraph that addresses and supports the thesis. Writers usually do not use every topic sentence developed, particularly when writing a short paper; however, having more material than needed is always better than having less. Step 6 Quotations used in a paper must support each of the topic sentences with which they are associated. Be sure to write down page numbers and web addresses while moving through the research process to assure that they can be easily accessed later. Each topic sentence should have at least three quotations that support the topic sentence. Depending on paper length, writers do not always use each example and quotation that they compile; however, and again, having more material than needed is always better than having less. The minimum number of examples for each topic sentence is two, and they should be strong quotations to assure that topic sentences are adequately developed in the body paragraphs.

3 3 Step 7 It is up to individual writers to decide what portions of the outline to keep. However, they must assure that they do not leave an unsupported topic sentence in their writing. In other words, if an example does not support a topic sentence, it should be purged. A Basic Outline Here it should be noted that there are myriad ways for writers to construct an essay, paper, book, or article. What is provided here are the basics of what should always be included when making an argument: An Introduction, including: 1. A few lines to introduce the topic of discussion 2. A thesis statement 3. An organizational statement demonstrating the categories of texts used to support the thesis statement. Body Paragraphs should include: 1. A topic sentence 2. Examples 3. Evidence from primary and/or secondary sources 4. A transitional sentence A Conclusion, including: 1. A summary of the argument that reflects the original thesis statement 2. A summary of the results of the study 3. A call to action (optional) to encourage readers to respond Notes on Paragraph Structure (for clarity) The introductory paragraph should offer readers a brief background of the topic at hand and should end with a thesis statement and an organizational statement. Excluding the introduction and conclusion, each paragraph (body paragraphs) must begin with a topic sentence. Do not start a new paragraph without introducing a new topic sentence. Each body paragraph must end with a transition: a sentence that connects the transition with the topic sentence directly following it in the next paragraph. Each body paragraph must begin with topic sentence, should contain the writer s discussion about the topic sentence specific to the paragraph as it relates to the thesis statement, including verifiable and cited quotations and/or paraphrases based upon the texts mentioned in the organizational statement, must support the topic sentence at hand, and must end with a transitional sentence leading readers into the next paragraph.

4 4 The concluding paragraph should begin with a paraphrase of the thesis statement and offer some type of overall analysis of the argument made in the paper. The above is a model for a four-paragraph paper. However, depending on the length of the paper, the following is a guideline: 1-2 pages / 2-3 body paragraphs: two to three topic sentences 3-5 pages / 3-4 body paragraphs: three to four topic sentences 8-10 pages or more / 7-9 body paragraphs: seven to nine topic sentences Using Quotations Correctly The best evidence to support topic sentences are direct quotations from credible sources. A direct quotation means nothing to an argument unless it is framed inside the writer s own sentences. When direct quotations are included, keep them short. Individual quotations should not be more than a single line of text. Long quotations, 3-4 sentences, are reserved for papers that are more than 1200 words and in such papers should only be used once. Long quotations are unacceptable in papers under 1200 words, unless the writer is using poetry. In such cases, these lines are not included in the writer s word count. Please note that long quotations are formatted differently (please refer to the MLA Handbook, 7 th edition for further information). When quoting only one word or a short familiar phrase, it need not be cited. If, in the outline, page numbers have been included with the quotations intended for use as evidence, citation is much easier. Quotation FAQ 1. How do are quotations chosen? Quotations are chosen by good writers based upon the credibility and publication date of the source, as well as the quotations relevance to the topic sentence on which they are working. Please note: it takes 2-5 years for a scholarly article or book to be published; therefore, it is best to only use secondary sources that are no more then 7-10 years old, unless the source offers a level of quality that has yet to be surpassed by other sources. For example, if a writer s topic is about a nineteenth-century text, a nineteenth-century book review or newspaper article would be considered appropriate. 2. How many quotations should be included in an academic paper? Generally speaking, body paragraphs in a short paper (1-5 pages) should include 1-5 total quotations; in a longer paper, 1-10 pages, there should be 5-7 total quotations. However, depending on the topic, the general knowledge held by potential reader about the topic, and the level of support needed to make a particular argument, the number of quotations in a paper can be altered. For novice writers, following the suggestions above is both recommended and expected. If at any time an author cannot find at least two solid quotations to prove their point, the point they are making is probably not a very strong point to be made. 3. How are quotations embedded (framed) in sentences? Quotations should be inclusive, which means that that they should be both logically and grammatically embedded in the authors sentences. A dead quotation is a quotation that is the sentence itself.

5 5 A dead quote looks like this: Never use dead quotations in an academic paper, (Blaque 243). An inclusive quote looks like this: The professor stated to never use dead quotations in an academic paper (Blaque 243), because it is non-inclusive and leads the reader to believe that the writer depends on others to write their papers for them. Note the difference. The dead quotation offers no reason for being, while the inclusive quote not only offers a reason for being, but is also analyzed by the writer. 4. Why are there numbers in parentheses at the end of the quotations? This is known as parenthetical documentation, parenthetical citation, or in-text citation. These citations are used to inform the reading audience about where the sources can be found quickly. Parenthetical citation in MLA style is a standard requirement in papers about literature. 5. There are three types of numbers used in parenthetical documentation: a. When quoting from prose, then the numbers in the parentheses are page numbers. b. When quoting from poetry, the numbers in the parentheses are line numbers. Be mindful that not all poems contain line numbers. Additionally, rap lyrics and spoken word poetry never have line numbers. In these cases, lines must be manually counted and referenced. c. When quoting from dramatic plays the numbers in the parentheses represent the act, scene, and line numbers. 6. Why is the writer s name sometimes in the parentheses and sometimes not? When a writer refers to the author from whom they quote by name in the sentence itself, there is no need to repeat the writer s name in the citation. However, if they do not, the writer s name is required in the parenthetical citation. In other words, if the reader can identify the writer of the quotation in the sentence itself, only page or line numbers are needed in the parenthetical citation; if not, the writer s name is required in the parenthetical citation. 7. Why is the title of the work sometimes in the parentheses and sometimes not? Occasionally writers use quotations from more than one work by the same author in the same paper. If that is the case, then a shortened form of the title of the author s work is used to enable the reader to determine which quotation comes from which work. How to Write Effective Introductions and Conclusions Introductions and conclusions are included in a paper for specific reasons and should not be used as filler to merely to take up space to meet a required word count. The guidelines below can help writers compose attention getting, yet effective introductions and conclusions. Despite the fact that a well written paper begins with an introduction, the writing process does not, and therefore, introductions should not be written until the outline has been completed. The introduction and conclusion are places where writers demonstrate a specific level of writing skill, and therefore should not only be creative, but also speak to the interest of the targeted reading audience, which is never their professor.

6 6 1. Both the introduction and conclusion should be brief. Together, they should take up no more than 25% of the entire writing regardless of its size. In other words, this applies to an academic paper, a scholarly article, or a book. 2. In a short paper, the introduction and conclusion should be no more than ONE paragraph each. 3. In the introduction and conclusion, writers sometimes use one of the following strategies: Make the argument from within a historical context using specific historical events relevant to the thesis statement. Discuss how the thesis statement fits neatly into a current event. When writing about a single primary text, such as a novel, poem, lyric, or play, use a quotation from that text; however, do not use a dead quotation. Be sure to embed it into a larger statement that either supports or illustrates the thesis statement. Write an anecdote, which is a brief personal narrative. However, authors should not discuss themselves, should avoid elementary connections such as, When I was young..., unless that story is relevant to the thesis statement. Call the reader to action. This is best used in the conclusion. A call to action, such as we must all work hard to learn more about the system of slavery in America s past so that we can better understand ourselves and our future, directs the audience to do something after he or she has read the paper. 4. The last two sentences of an introduction are the thesis and organization statements, in that order. 5. The first few sentences of a conclusion, depending on word count requirements, should paraphrase the original thesis statement and author s argument. Proper citation for this text is as follows: Blaque, Ellesia A. Writing a College Paper Step-by-Step: The Value of Outlining. Epic Connections: Inscriptions of the African American Experience. Philadelphia: Banned Books & Co., This document was written by Dr. Ellesia Blaque. Revised and updated January 15, 2010.

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