Generating an outline before working is not just a good idea, it is essential. Most of the thinking that goes into an essay should be done by the time the outline is written, so that when you actually sit down to write your essay from the outline, your writing is not a matter of formulating ideas in your mind but merely a matter of presenting those ideas in a coherent and persuasive manner.
Let me present a fictitious situation with following essay prompt:
For more than six hundred years-that is, since Magna Carta, in 1215–there has been no clearer principle of English or American constitutional law, than that, in criminal cases, it is not only the right and duty of juries to judge what are the facts, what is the law, and what was the moral intent of the accused.
~ Lysander Spooner.
Research the process of trial by jury in America and write a five paragraph essay confirming or refuting Lysander Spooner’s statement above.
A composition student may write an outline, which looks something like this:
“Trial by Jury”
1. Development of trial by jury throughout history.
2. Thesis: Trial by jury is a good idea.
II. Body of Essay
1. Explain what trial by jury is.
2. Explain the use of trial by jury throughout the world.
3. Give some alternative to trial by jury.
1. Explain why trial by jury is such a good idea.
2. Spooner’s quote about trial by jury system
This outline is too sketchy and too vague to bring about a focused and persuasive essay. Any student who wrote an essay based on this outline would not really know what he or she was really going to write about, not in general, nor in any specific sense.
- The thesis statement is too vague, no criteria can be set up for evaluating whether something is a ‘good idea’.
- Each paragraph in the essay is so vague as to leave the student still wondering what he is going to write when he finally sets pen to paper or fingertips to keyboard.
- The essay does not ask for trial by jury throughout the world, it asks specifically that the student refute or confirm Spooner’s statement. Any thesis statement that does not confirm or refute Spooner has not answered the essay prompt.
Apart from not answering the essay prompt, the outline above has another fatal flaw. It does not perform the ‘office’ that an outline should perform. It does not serve as a blueprint for what the student is going to say, nor how he is going to say it. A student with a poor outine doubles his work and also the possibility of getting writer’s block. He has to both think about what he is going to say at the same time that he is trying to figure out how to say it when he gets down to the task of writing his paragraphs.
The outline should be written so well that it guides and serves the student through the essay writing process by laying out the arguments long before the student gets to the paragraph writing stage.
Let us look at how to achieve this, first by discussing how to write a strong thesis statement and then by discussing how to write a strong outline.
A Strong Thesis Statement
The thesis statement is the guiding sentence around which the essay revolves. A weak thesis statement such as “trial by jury is a good idea” is impossible to defend or refute definitively. We need to help our students focus that thesis statement down to something that can be demonstrated.
The first step is to boil the essay prompt down to a specific question that can be answered. In the prompt above Lysander Spooner says that it is the right and duty of juries in trials to judge the facts, the law, and the intent of the accused. The student is asked to confirm or refute Lysander Spooner’s statement that it is the right and duty of juries in trials to judge the facts, the law, and the intent of the accused. This essay prompt is then boiled down to the question.
Question: “Is it the right and duty of juries to judge the facts, the law, and the intent of the accused?
Answer: The function of juries in a criminal court case to discern the facts of the case, decide how they align with the law, and to establish the intent of the accused.
Now the outline can be written. Every point in the outline points back to the “Answer” above, supporting it and elaborating the thoughts contained in it.
A Strong Outline
For any essay, the general outline will look something like this
- Introductory opening strategy
- Thesis statement __________________________________
1. Paragraph 1: Topic _______________
- Opening sentence
- Detail 1
- Detail 2
- Detail 3
- or more details …
- Concluding sentence
2. Paragraph 2: Topic ______________________
- Opening/Transition sentence
- Detail 1
- Detail 2
- Detail 3
- or more details ….
- Concluding Sentence
etc for as many paragraphs as the body of the essay has
- Recapping the essence of your thesis
- Summarize what you said.
For the specific essay prompt I gave above, the outline might look something like this:
- Introduction – Discuss briefly medieval trial by ordeal, the the modern more objective form of justice found in trial by jury.
- Thesis statement: The function of juries in a criminal court case to discern the facts of the case, decide how they align with the law, and to establish the intent of the accused. This assures the accused of a fair and objective trial.
1. Paragraph 1: Topic – Define what a fair trial is.
2. Paragraph 2: Topic -discerning the facts of the case
- Opening sentence – The first step in getting a fair trial is establishing what really happened and whether the accused committed the crime he was accused of.
- Detail 1 – What does the narrative account say the accused did?
- Detail 2 – If so, what did he do? Define the action he did in light of the facts presented .
- Concluding sentence – Establishing the facts leads to a fair trial.
2. Paragraph 2: Topic – decide how the facts align with the law
- Opening sentence – We know what the accused did. Is it a crime?
- Detail 1 – What does the law say about his actions?
- Detail 2 – If what he did was a crime, of what severity was it?
- Concluding Sentence – Establishing what the law allows is part of a fair trial
3. Paragraph 3: Topic – Establish the intent of the accused
- Opening sentence – If we have established that the accused committed a crime, and of what severity the crime was, we now need to establish his state of mind while committing the crime.
- Detail 1 – did he do it by accident, in anger, or on purpose and pre-meditated
- Detail 2 – Intent is the indicator of the moral state of the mind of the accused when he committed the crime.
- Concluding Sentence – Establishing intent ensures a fair trial.
- A fair trial is ensured by establishing the facts of the case, by knowing what the law allows, and by establishing the intent of the accused when he committed the crime
- Quote Spooner’s quote to back up the thesis statement.
- Conclude that trial by jury is the best way to ensure a fair trial and an improvement of trial by ordeal.
After Writing the Outline
When the outline has been written, it needs to be checked (preferably today and then again tomorrow when the mind is fresh) against the thesis statement.
Every paragraph must refer back to and support the thesis statement. If it does not, it needs to be revised or possibly even thrown out. It is not enough that the paragraph is about the same topic as the thesis statement.
To Sum Up
Write a strong outline for every essay assignment, and the essay writes itself. It is an indispensable tool for writing confidently and well.