Most undergraduate students begin their college careers by taking English 100 and/or 101, both of which teach the importance of outlining. In the classroom environment, outlines can seem rigid, cold, and pointless, often causing students to stop making them after passing their required English courses. However, outlining can be a helpful tool and, if utilized well, can transform the writing process for students who struggle with it. Developing an outline, even a rough or messy one, chops the writing process into more manageable pieces, provides a safe place to explore ideas, and organizes thoughts ahead of time.
Creating an outline has all the benefits of getting your ideas out on paper with none of the stress of having to come up with the right words on the spot. Putting a rough outline together, whether on paper or on a computer, is low-pressure, painless, and easy to complete in one sitting, with the added benefit that you feel less like you have to write everything at once. A huge part of the writing process, the organizing of ideas, has been completed. When you come back to work on your paper, it will be encouraging to see the “blueprint” of your paper already written out—all you have to do is fill in the gaps!
Although outlines have a reputation for being too rigid, they can actually be freeing if approached with the right mindset. You can “mock-write” your entire essay in bullet points, trying main points out, switching them around, and adding or deleting them to fit your established thesis. This early experimentation can save you from spending a lot of time rewriting an entire paragraph because you don’t like its point (which I’ve had to do before!). Let the outline be a safe zone for you to try anything with your paper.
A construction company would not begin work on a building without first drawing up and approving plans. Even with good materials and design ideas, the building would end up a jumbled mess without plans. Similarly, sitting down to a blank Word file to write a paper with nothing but ideas swirling in your mind can be chaotic. If you rely simply on your headspace, it will be difficult to know what your points are, in what order they go, and how they will unfold. This is the strongest argument for outlining – it provides a valuable blueprint for your first draft.