You Can Teach Writing

How to write an outline:

Don't. Plan a writing skeleton™ instead.

Rather than teach students how to write an outline, have students make plans.

In teaching writing, getting students past their reluctance to attempt basic writing tasks is the first step toward making them into competent writers.

You can overcome much of students' reluctance to engage in tasks that will enable them to become competent expository writers simply by changing the terminology you use.

I try to avoid using terms that struggling writers, who are the majority of my students, associate with unpleasant English class experiences, such as:

  • create and creating, which most males regard as girl-stuff, like writing at least one poem before breakfast every day and typing a novel during study hall.
  • write and writing, which many students of both sexes associate with boring, frustrating, irrelevant stuff
  • outlines and outlining, which are strange things done by English teachers and other weirdos.

Students are marginally more willing to learn how to make an outline than to learn how to write one. Students associate verbs like make, do, construct, build, and craft with activities that are much more fun than writing. If you choose one of those non-ELA sounding verbs, you make preparing an essay outline or a research paper outline sound like something students can do at the kitchen table or garage workbench.

To make teaching how to write an outline even easier, get rid of both the verb write and the noun outline at least until students are competent expository writers.

Adapt a minimalist approach to outlining.

When teaching how to write an outline, I have students use my strategic writing process associated with what's still called the five-paragraph essay — but I don't use the words write or essay or five- paragraph.

I begin teaching outlining by replacing that spooky phrase create a writing outline with the decidedly non-ELA phrase make a writing skeleton.

For writing prompts I use for teaching writing, students can get by with a writing skeleton™ consisting of:

  • a working thesis statement, and
  • at least three — but no more than five — supporting points each written as full sentences.

Even reluctant writers can be coaxed, cajoled, or coerced into learning how to write an outline if an entire document can be planned in no more than a half dozen sentences.

The supporting points — the skeleton's bones — will become the topic sentences of the body paragraphs. So at the very start of the planning stage students already have begun paragraph development.  Can your outlining method match that?

Start from the writer's working thesis.

A working thesis statement contains a topic and an assertion set out in simple subject-verb order without any frills. No introductory clauses, qualifiers, or any compound elements belong in the working thesis. Just use simple syntax, like this:

A writing skeleton begins with a working thesis like this: Computers can hurt you.

Let me show you how easy it is to turn that working thesis into the powerful sentence outline I call a writing skeleton™. 

First replace the period in the working thesis with the word because. That leaves you with a sentence fragment:

The working thesis plus the word because form the pattern for how to write an outline in writing skeleton format.

Make three copies of that sentence fragment. These copies are placeholders for the bones of the writing skeleton, each tied to the working thesis statement.

Pretend there is a blank after each occurrence of the word because. Fill in each blank to make a complete sentence. Here's an example:

Writing skeleton shows how to write an outline with each point connected to the working thesis statement.

As you can see, the result is a simple sentence outline. Each sentence contains what could become the topic sentence of one of the body paragraphs that supporting the working thesis statement. 

In other words, students have the equivalent of a three-point sentence outline in two shakes of a lamb's tail. True, it doesn't have the Roman numerals, but who, other than Romans, need them? 

The writing skeleton™ is awkward and ungainly, but that doesn't matter. Nobody but the writer needs to see the skeleton.

A writing skeleton™ beats a sentence outline 10 different ways.

The primary purpose of the writing skeleton™ is to test whether there are at least three non-overlapping reasons for believing the thesis the writer picked is true.

1. A writing skeleton™ reduces planning time.

The writing skeleton™ is an entirely mechanical, fill-in-the-blanks process. The repetition reduces the time students need to spend time figuring how to write an outline for a particular type of document.

2. A writing skeleton™ predicts time to completion.

Being able to complete a writing skeleton™ quickly on an authentic class topic means the writer has information at hand with which to complete the plan.

Students who can't complete a writing skeleton™ about a working thesis on an authentic class topic quickly will probably take twice as much time to get ready to speed draft a document as their better prepared peers.

3. A writing skeleton™ provides focus.

The writing skeleton™ links the working thesis and the topic sentences so writers cannot easily lose track of the point they are trying to prove.

4. A writing skeleton's three points are insurance.

Students who plan to present at least three points have insurance against, for example, an unavoidable problem that prevents their interviewing a source or reading the library reserve materials they wanted to consult.

5.  A writing skeleton™ makes overlap stand out.

The main purpose of the writing skeleton™ is to test whether there are at least three non-overlapping reasons for believing the thesis the writer picked is true. 

The writing skeleton™ makes spotting overlapping ideas easier than a sentence outline does — but learning to spot overlaps will still require a great deal of teacher feedback. 

6. A writing skeleton™ reveals search terms.

The writing skeleton™ can be prepared before a writer does any research, thereby giving the writer key search terms.  The writing skeleton™ also lets a writer to look for specific information. 

Working from a writing skeleton, students won't find as many sources that lend themselves to wholesale copy-and-paste as do students working from a topic outline, but they also are less likely to get themselves in plagiarism trouble.

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7.  A writing skeleton™ becomes a complete plan.

The writing skeleton™ can be inserted into an outline template, which looks like a fill-in form. Everything they need to compose their documents will be in one place.

8. A writing skeleton™ gives topic sentences for paragraph development.

Each of the bones of the writing skeleton™ is a supporting sentence for the writer's thesis statement and a topic sentence for a body paragraph. Students can use those statements to guide their evidence gathering and their paragraph development.

9.  A writing skeleton™ adapts to most types of writing.

The writing skeleton™ works with any expository content. It can be used with many different types of texts organized on the thesis and support pattern, and it can be adapted for arguments and narratives. It's also very useful for public speakers.

10. A writing skeleton™ suits collaborators. 

The writing skeleton™ is ideally suited to collaborative writing because it assures that each writer is working to support the same thesis as the other writers. 

What to read next

By having students plan using a writing skeleton™, they will not only learn how to write an outline that's useful but will also speed their progress into using ripple writing strategy for identifying sources of supporting evidence. 

The writing strategies (WS) for students use are best read in the order in which you teach them and students use them: WS1, Make a working thesis; WS2, Make a writing skeleton; WS3, Ripple for sources; WS4, Make a complete plan; WS5, Speed draft; WS6, Do the evidence waltz; WS7, Revise to match the plan; WS8, Do single error editing.

Content on this page previously appeared on two pages of you-can-teach-writing.com. Part of it was published 2010-10-05 and part was published 2010-10-15 by Linda Aragoni. She published it on this page of yctwriting.com 2018-01-01.

Visitor comment about how to write an outline.

I was always confused about how to make an outline before all the details of the research were worked thru. Yours makes better sense. ~ Yvonne