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How Using Outlines for Academic Writing Can Save Your Sanity

Recently, a student in search of an editor for a research paper contacted me. During our initial consultation, I asked her for her working outline. Much to my sadness, rather than handing me a piece of paper, she responded with an expression usually reserved for individuals stricken with deep confusion.

And when I say “deep confusion,” I mean a complete and total loss of functional thought.

Basically, I was stared at as though an extra arm had sprouted from my forehead. My sadness was because, in the land of research and academia, it doesn’t matter if you are writing a five- or fifty-page paper. Having an outline is the key to success.

Let me say it again, so that I’m very, very clear: outlines are crucial to the academic writing process.

Think of your paper as a dresser. Dressers have drawers, right? And we use those drawers to separate our clothing so we are able to get dressed with minimal confusion- underwear and socks from the top drawer, a shirt from the middle drawer and a pair of pants from the bottom drawer.

That makes sense, right? So if we organize our clothes, our silverware and other simple objects, why wouldn’t we organize our thoughts?

Mind blown. 

So, to continue the flow of awesome, I’m going to give you a few resources to help jumpstart your inner outlining genius:

1.  Every writing program (Word, Pages, etc.) has a variety of bullet point styles and outline templates built into the software. Once you’ve figured out the way you want your headings and subheadings set up (and sell your soul for the instructions to format them without going completely bonkers) it’s all plug and play!

2.  If you want to get really fancy, you can look online for even more templates! Google, Microsoft, and a variety of academically owned websites have these templates and examples for download. Be very careful when you are choosing sites to download from, though, and use only reputable web locations. Ain’t nobody got time for a sucky virus that will crash your hard drive.

3.  The Purdue OWL website has several explanations and examples of academic research outlines, and even a nifty PowerPoint presentation available free for download. You can check them out here:

      This site has saved my scholarly booty on more than a few occasions, but that’s a topic for another day.  

So there you go! Writing a research paper can be as simple as getting dressed!

Okay, not really. But, when it comes down to brass tacks, taking the time to create a functional list of topics to be addressed and your plan to address them will likely save you hours of work. Hours that can be spent doing other things. And, hours saved are a precious commodity for any student!


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