If you’re anything like me, your body shudders when a teacher tells you to write an outline. It feels even worse than writing the essay itself. Why are outlines even necessary?
If your teacher is asking for a outline, it means she or he wants to save you from major future headaches. If they see any organizational or logistical issues within your outline, or if they are not satisfied with your thesis statement, they can tell you early on before you put all the effort into writing the paragraphs.
Plus, if you spend a lot of time on your outlines, you don’t have to spend as much time on your essays later. When I was pretty confident that my essay was going well, I would write full sentences on my outline; that way I was basically writing a first draft, too. Writing my final draft, it was easy to copy and paste from my outline. I barely had to try at all by the end of my writing process.
Outlines are hard. But if you put all the work in upfront, the final draft is so easy. Let’s make the outline process easier, shall we?
My English professor, Mark Sturges, gave us the perfect format to create an outline for a literary analysis essay. His outline is driven by the functionality of each sentence. What purpose does it serve in your argument? In Mark’s outline, for the introduction, you identify the function, hook, importance, and transition.
For the body paragraphs, you fill your outline with content (especially relevant quotes) and always identify the importance of the paragraph. Also, clearly illustrate your paragraph’s connection to your thesis statement. You can also focus on topic sentences (the first sentence of your paragraph: how do you show your reader what your paragraph is about?) and transition sentences (to smoothen the flow from one paragraph to another).
For the conclusion, focus mainly on reiterating your thesis statement in a new way, and illustrating the importance of your essay. Why should anyone care? What do you contribute to the conversation?
“You’re not married to your outline,” Mark would always say. In my final draft, my introduction looked a little different, but it still makes the same argument that my outline made.
Hook: In “The Philosophy of Composition,” Edgar Allan Poe writes, “That pleasure which is at once most intense, the most elevating, and the most pure, is, I believe, found in the contemplation of the beautiful” (704).
Transition: Many critics read “The Philosophy of Composition” as satirical, however, in context with the rest of the Romantic aesthetic movement, Poe’s philosophic theories reflect his consideration of and respect for the ideas of many other famous thinkers of his time, such as Shelley, Coleridge, Hölderlin, Mallarmé, and Kant.
Increasing specificity relating to thesis: Poe was in conversation with these Romantic philosophers from a variety of countries, all of which theorized about art, poetry, the beautiful, and aesthetic theory. In his introduction of Poe in The Norton Anthology, Levine writes, “the pursuit of the beautiful in works of art motivated Poe’s writing until the very end” (608).
Thesis: Therefore, Poe’s poetry and tales are much more than creepy stories, but rather embodiments of Poe’s ideal of the beautiful. Poe’s creative attempts at pursuing beauty and his philosophical aesthetic essays reveal that Poe was educated about and in conversation with the aesthetic philosophers of the Romantic Movement. Poe’s ideal of the beautiful aligns with Romantic aesthetic philosophy in that it idealizes unified juxtapositions.
Reminder: your thesis statement can be more than one sentence. In this particular essay of mine, my thesis statement ran more sentences than usual, but that’s completely fine.
Thesis reiterated: While many critics believe that Poe was uninvolved in the Romantic Movement, Poe was clearly directly involved with Romantic aesthetic theories.
Transition away from thesis, into broader terms: Poe, in context with the broader scope of Romanticism, clearly exemplified the Romantic ideals of unifying contrast throughout his creative works and philosophical essays.
Importance of essay (understanding Poe differently): Many critics interpret Poe’s “The Philosophy of Composition” as satirical—how could a poet be advocating for the use of mathematics in poetry?—but Poe’s obsession with unifying juxtapositions reveals that Poe’s pursuit of the beautiful was most successful when he combined the contrasting fields of rational science and mathematics with artistic creativity. Similarly, Poe’s scientific, observational tales combine the rationality of science with irrational violence and out-worldly events. Poe clearly practices what he preaches in his pursuit of the beautiful in his use of mathematics, science, and rationality in combination with his creative expression.
Conclusion sentence (leaving readers with something to think about): It is time critics start recognizing Poe’s involvement in the Romantic aesthetic movement, which reveals the genuine nature of his philosophical aesthetic essays, as well as the calculation and philosophical theories he illustrated throughout his creative works.
Next Time You Write
I encourage you to consider how helpful and relevant outlines are when writing essays. Even if your teacher doesn’t ask you to write one, outlines help you clearly stay on track while writing, so that you never venture too far off course. Write an outline using Mark’s template, watch your grades skyrocket, and notice how much time and how many headaches you save.
Remember: an outline provides a roadmap for you while you write, but it’s always okay to take a slightly different route.