Writing a paper or making a presentation? Make an outline: Here’s why

Have you ever found yourself writing a paper and then being 200 words over the word count? Or what about writing seemingly forever, but still being 300 words below the word count?


Has a teacher ever told you that a paper was “hard to follow” or “off track”?


Do you feel like you’re spending way too much time writing a paper?


Do you just have no idea where to start with a school project?


If you answered yes to any of the above questions, you’re not alone! But there is good news. Here’s a secret to help you create an awesome paper or presentation, and a tip to save you time: Make an outline.


Make a plan for your paper or presentation by creating an outline.

What? Why make an outline? Maybe you’re thinking that’s a waste of time, and that it’s more efficient to jump straight into writing, or making the PowerPoint slides. I get it—many of us just want to get the project done.


These concerns as valid. However, I promise that there are surprising benefits to frontloading your work into the planning and outlining stage before jumping in.


Why make an outline?


Writing a paper and making an oral presentation are surprisingly similar when it comes to the preparation: research, organizing, and figuring out what to say or write. When you write down the main points of your paper or presentation, at a glance you can see all the ideas that you have, all the paragraphs that will need to be written, and any gaps you might have in research. Before you spend a couple of hours writing the paper, you have a big-picture overview of the whole project. This can, in fact, save you time. Why spend hours writing a 3,000-word draft when the final can only be 2,500 words? It’s agonizing to have to cut your own writing, but spending an hour to make a plan and seeing if you have too much material, or not enough material, can help save some writing time.


Think about it: Soldiers don’t go into battle without a military strategy or tactic. Football teams don’t go into games without a game plan. And TedTalk speakers don’t deliver their TedTalks without rehearsing for hours ahead of time. Doing and planning are two different things. To get the desired result: a battle won, a game won, or a TedTalk with lots of Youtube views—there has to be practice and a plan ahead of time. It’s no different writing school papers or making school presentations. An outline is your plan.


Convinced? Maybe not yet, but give it a try at least once with these steps.


How to make an outline?


Step 1: Reread the assignment prompt. What is the teacher asking you to do? What is the prompt of that college application essay asking you to write?


Example: Research renewable energies. Make an argument for which renewable energy is most promising for the US.


Step 2: Figure out your purpose, or main point. Sometimes we call this a thesis statement. This purpose or main point usually comes after doing some research.


Example: After researching, my main point is “Wind power is the most promising and economical renewable energy.”


Pro tip: Double-check this main point responds to the assignment prompt. Before you go any further, check that it matches the prompt and that you’re following directions!


Step 3: Determine some main ideas or key points that support your main point. Sometimes we call these subpoints. Add the sources where you found these ideas if you did research.


Example: Wind power is the most promising and economical renewable energy because

Step 4: Write down some supporting details that support these subpoints. In other words, what are the details you’d need to add to “explain” or “strengthen” the subpoints? Remember to cite your sources.


Example: Wind power is the most promising and economical renewable energy because


Wind turbines are versatile and can generate electricity in many areas.

  • Whenever there is wind, electricity can be generated.

  • Wind turbines can operate at night and when it's cloudy, unlike solar panels.

  • Technology is advancing; taller wind turbines have been created for slower-wind areas (U.S. Department of Energy, 2015).

  • Water isn’t needed to run wind turbines (U.S. Department of Energy, 2015).

It's cost-efficient to maintain the wind turbines.

Wind turbines can be constructed in rural areas, helping the economic growth of rural America.


There are disadvantages to consider, however:


Step 5: Take a look at this big-picture plan. This is like the blueprint for a house. Before you start to build, you determine if this is what you want. Is this the kind of house you want to build? Do any rooms need to be added? Is the laundry room too big? Maybe the kitchen should be expanded? Before diving in to write, or to transfer this information to PowerPoint or another slide program, evaluate how good this plan is. Might you have to go back and do some more research? Does anything need to be cut out? Is this a persuasive plan? Does this plan answer the assignment prompt? It should match the prompt. Follow directions to get the best grade possible.


Step 6: Write! Or start making the PowerPoint. Here’s where you have full permission to start “doing” the project: the writing or opening PowerPoint. You’ve made the plan, now you get to execute the plan. Some people like to start with the easiest section first. Maybe that’s the middle. Often, introductions are hard to write. You don’t need to start there, even if chronologically it’s going to be the first thing your teacher reads. Just start writing in the place easiest for you. The same goes for PowerPoint: you don’t have to make the introduction slide first. That’s up to you.

Use a mind map to brainstorm ideas and plan the paper.


Are you more of a visual learner?

Make a mind map! This is another great tactic that can yield the same benefits. You can put the main idea in the middle, and then branch off with subpoints. Off the subpoints, you can branch-off with supporting details.


Check out sketchboard.io or bubble.us to make an online map. Or, get out a piece of paper and a writing utensil and start sketching. The steps are the same. Before writing the full draft: reflect on the big picture plan, or the blueprint. Is all the information there? Is there anything that should be added or taken away? Does this plan match the assignment prompt?

Remember that this is about what works for you. The outline doesn’t have to use Roman Numerals or “look” like any pre-conceived outline. It just has to work for you.


Seriously, invest in this time upfront in the planning stage of your project. It can—and will—save time later and produce a better product!

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