It might prove useful to organize the ideas that suggest themselves during the freewriting and clustering exercises into a preliminary outline form. It is possible to write a paper without an outline, but it might suggest that your paper lacks organization if it proves impossible to write an outline that describes the thinking process behind your paper. Outlining never hurt; how helpful it is depends on what kind of thinker you are. At the least, a tentative outline can suggest areas in which your paper needs additional work or supporting details to bolster main ideas or, on the other hand, areas which have too much emphasis and need to be pruned down to avoid an imbalance. It might also help you to see how ideas are related and where connections or transitions are necessary between sections of your paper. Furthermore, the outline will help you visualize how ideas fit within the thesis statement that is taking shape in your mind. Remember that your outline is only a tentative skeleton to hang ideas on; limbs can be lopped off or added as the writing proceeds. Your instructor might require you to submit a formal outline for approval before you write your paper or to go along with your final draft. If that is so, this tentative outlining process will serve you well later on.

The Guide to Writing Research Papers has a special section on writing outlines, and we recommend you review that material. From that document, here is one image (below) that might prove especially helpful, a sample outline (from the MLA Handbook) of another proposed paper. The important thing to notice about it is how supporting details are arranged beneath more important ideas and the outline branches out (toward the right) as ideas become more supportive in nature. Logic demands that an "A" be followed by a "B." (If there is no "B," maybe there shouldn't be an "A," or "A" should be incorporated into the paper in some other way.)

Based on the MLA's sample, here is Thruston Parry's tentative outline for his proposed paper on the effects of El Niño:

  1. Disastrous Weather Effects
    1. December Ice Storm in Maine
      1. huge power outage
      2. schools out 2 wks
      3. jobs lost
      4. cost in trees
      5. replacing power poles, etc.
    2. Rains in CA
      1. mudslides
      2. highways ripped apart
      3. expensive homes in ocean
      4. insurance costs
    3. Weather in FL
      1. Killer tornadoes
      2. freeze in March
        1. dead oranges
        2. costs of other fruits
    4. Other Disasters
      1. Flash floods in AZ
      2. ????
  2. Not so bad effects
    1. Mild winter in New England
    2. Flowers in Death Valley Desert
    3. Skiing conditions in CO
    4. Mild winter in upper plains
  3. Long-term effects
    1. Power lines go underground
    2. Landscape
      1. trees
      2. ????
  4. Really important effects
    1. Sense of powerlessness
    2. Fear of next winter

Points to Ponder:

  • Are we closer to being able to write a paper than we were before we created the outline?
  • Do any transitions between ideas suggest themselves?
  • Is anything left out of our outline? Would you have organized the thoughts in the clustering exercise differently?
  • Does the outline seem balanced or is part of it overwhelming the rest?
  • There is no Thesis Statement yet. Does the outline help us resolve what that controlling idea might be?
  • Before finally sitting down to write our paper on El Niño, we might check out what we can find out about it on the internet at a site like this one from the Environmental News Network -- being careful, of course, to give proper credit for any ideas we borrow and not to let the thoughts of others overshadow our own good ideas.