An outline is basically a plan for your paper. It shows the order of the topics you're going to address and the relationships between them. Creating an outline before you start writing helps you to organize your thoughts and can show you where any weaknesses in your paper might be. Once you're satisfied with your outline, you can use it as a guide to bring structure and focus to your writing.
Structuring your Outline
Outlines usually move from the general to the specific. A generalized concept or a broad statement that summarizes your topic becomes the first level of your outline. Below that (and indented so that you can easily see the difference) is a second level point or fact that supports the first level. Each first level item can have multiple second level items, and each of these can include supporting details of their own that form 3rd and 4th levels, and so on. Go into as much detail as you need.
Links to Help
The Online Writing Lab (or OWL) at Purdue has fantastic guides to help with every stage of your writing. See the link to their guide on developing an outline below. Also, see the link to Quicklyst, a free online tool that will help you create an outline.
The Writing Process is just that - a process. Don't think of your essay or report as an overwhelming task. Take it step by step and you'll be surprised at how well it all comes together!
Prewriting is all of the important stuff you do BEFORE you actually begin writing your paper. It usually includes things like:
The actual writing of the prewriting stage can be done in several different ways. You can try:
Try all of these techniques individually, or use a combination of them. Whatever works for you. Check out the link below for some useful prewriting tools.
Once you've finished most of your research and done a little pre-writing it's time to get a relatively cohesive rough draft written. Use your outline as a guide and get your ideas laid out in a logical order. Remember to start with an introductory paragraph, that sets up your topic and position. Include a thesis statement and use the body paragraphs to support it, including evidentiary information and/or quotations taken from your research. Your first draft is basically the first incarnation of what your final paper will be, so it should be more formal than your pre-writing. Use complete sentences and full paragraphs, but don't worry too much about things like spelling and grammar yet. You still have the editing and proofreading stages to go through, and you may produce several drafts before you get to your final.
When you're ready to revise you want to start by looking at the big picture. Sure you may have some spelling mistakes, maybe you missed a period here and there, but that's what proofreading is for. For right now, go paragraph by paragraph. Are your points stated clearly and well developed? Is the structure and order of your paper as effective as it could be?
Revising is really about asking yourself questions, starting with "How can I change this to make it better?" Take a look at some of the links below for examples of questions to ask yourself when revising:
Proofreading is the final step in writing a paper. The purpose of proofreading is to find and correct grammatical errors (spelling, punctuation, word usage, etc.) and any other mistakes, such as typos, incorrect formatting, misused words, incorrect spacing of words or letters, and so forth.
1. Print out and use a paper copy to check for errors that you overlooked on the computer screen.
2. Start at the end of the paper and read backward to the beginning word-by-word. This strategy is especially effective for finding misspellings, typos, double spacing, and other mechanical problems. It will also help you discover overused words.
3. Scan your paper. Errors that are overlooked in careful readings will often pop-out at you during a quick scan.
4. Think about the errors that you consistently make when you write and scrutinize your paper for those specific problems. Do you consistently use a semi-colon when you should use a comma? Check for that. Do you consistently make certain typos or misspell certain words? Look for those.
5. Keep an online or print grammar guide open and handy for reference.
One of the most important parts of the writing process is tragically overlooked by many students.
TAKE A BREAK
Ask any panicked undergraduate, chained to a computer at 4 AM the morning before their paper is due how they're feeling and they'll have one thing to say: "I should have started earlier." It's so, so important to start your work early not only so that you'll have enough time to get it done, but also so that you'll have time to take a step back and get some perspective.
Taking (short) breaks, especially between drafting and revising gives you time to let things simmer and to come back to your work with a fresh eye. Things that made total sense while you were up to your eyebrows in work, might not make ANY sense when you've had time to distance yourself a little bit.
Unfortunately, taking breaks requires the kind of time that students usually don't leave themselves. So consider this a two part tip.
START EARLY SO THAT YOU'LL HAVE TIME TO TAKE BREAKS
See below for the text in this image/diagram.
When you look at a book, you do not see the process the writer used to make it. What you see in print might not be much like the first plan for the book. The author might have rewritten many times.
The writing process is often divided into five stages. Most writers go back and forth through these stages. There is no one correct way to write.
[Editor's Note: To show the iterative nature of this process, the diagram shows double-headed arrows drawn between the following sets of sub-headings: Prewriting and Drafting. Revising and Drafting. Revising and Proofreading. Publishing and Proofreading.]
In this stage, you plan what you are going to write. You choose a topic, identify your audience and purpose, brainstorm ideas, and organize information.
In this stage, you write your ideas in sentences and paragraphs. Follow your prewriting plan to write a first draft of your composition.
This is the first part of editing and writing. You may work by yourself or with a partner or a group. Make changes that will improve your writing.
In this stage, you finish your editing by polishing your work. Check for errors in grammar, spelling, capitalization, and punctuation. Make a final copy of your composition.
Finally, you choose a way to present your work to an audience. You may want to add pictures, make a class book, or read your work aloud.