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  • Cassandra Holcombe

The Helpfulness of Outlines

The irony of this moment is not lost on me. My least favorite part of writing papers in late elementary and early middle school was when I had to outline the whole thing on paper. I would whine and complain about how I just wanted to start the essay and about how useless outlines were. My teacher would just smile and tell me that I had to do it anyway. Given that I am now, writing this post, she must have foreseen this moment.

The truth that I see now, and did not wish to acknowledge when I was younger, is that outlines are helpful. They provide a clear road map for later writing. They also help organize the paper into coherent arguments that strengthen the thesis and create a logical flow to the paper.

From the standpoint of a writing tutor, I see how they can assist with cooperation between the person writing the paper and the tutor helping them with it.

As writers, you and I have something in common: we know that getting started with a paper can sometimes be the hardest part. I know everything that I want to say, but I can find myself staring at the blinking cursor and trying hard to put into exact words. I try to say everything at once, but the words are tangled up in my head like a knot as a result of this method.

Writing in outlines helps to prevent the knot or untie it at the very least. I make decisions while creating the outlines about what comes first and then what comes second and so on until I have my all of my ideas neatly in place. What results is a map of ideas that details the overall big picture of what I am about to write.

That overall picture is important because of something that we can often forget about papers: papers are arguments. Arguments have an end goal as well as supporting logical and factual evidence.

By comparison, people have a tendency to think of the essay they are writing as a collection of ideas based on an assigned topic. Outlines play a vital role in ensuring that papers end up as arguments instead of a collection of ideas by making a writer look at the overall assignment and question what each part is doing.

As a tutor, I have found writing outlines to be one of my most useful and frequently used tools. I can physically show what I am thinking to the writer, something that can be extra useful in the case of a non-native English speaker.

I am also not the only tutor to think this. When asked to rate the usefulness of outlines on a scale of 1-5 in a survey I took of the Mississippi College Writing Center in 2018, only one of my fifteen respondents rated outlines below a 3. Over half of the tutors surveyed said that they use outlines when composing their own essays. Based on these statistics, we can see that the helpfulness of outlines is highly rated among tutors.

Whether you are a student with your own assignment or a tutor assisting someone else with theirs, outlines are a great tool. If you still have doubts and want to see outlines in action, visit the Writing Center, and you will see them at work.

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