Plan a structure that suits your assignment

Plan a structure that suits your assignment

Many writers are more efficient when they know in advance how to develop their thesis and where to fit the information they have gathered.

For some, that strategy means organizing their notes into a sequence that makes sense.

Others prefer to sketch out a list of ideas in a rough outline; still others prefer to prepare a formal outline.

Every composition should have the following components:

  • A beginning, or introduction, that hooks the reader and usually states the thesis
  • A middle, or body, that develops the main idea in a series of paragraphs — each making a point that is supported by specific details
  • An ending, or conclusion, that gives the reader a sense of completion, often by offering a final comment on the thesis
Deciding on an organizational scheme

1. Deciding on an organizational scheme

Think about how you will lay out the body of your composition, using one or a combination of the following organizational schemes:

Chronological organization:

A chronological organization takes the reader through a series of events while explaining their significance to the thesis.

A text that walks the reader scene by scene through a movie or play employs a chronological scheme, as does a biography or a case study.

A survey of the literature for an informative report might also proceed chronologically, from the earliest to the most recent articles on a topic.

Problem-solution organization:

The problem-solution scheme is an efficient way to present a rationale for change.

For example, an argument written for a U.S. government course could explain the problems with voting online and then describe solutions for overcoming each difficulty.

Thematic organization:

A thematic structure takes the reader through a series of examples that build from simple to complex, from general to specific, or from specific to general.

For example, begins with a general discussion of Salgado’s work and then focuses on one specific photograph.

type of outline

2. Deciding on a type of outline

It is not essential to have an outline before you begin drafting, but a scratch outline can help you get started and keep you moving forward.

After you have a first draft, outlining what you have written can help you spot organizational problems or places where the support for your thesis is weak.

Scratch outline

A scratch outline is a simple list of points, without the levels of subordination that are found in more complex outlines.

Scratch outlines are useful for briefer papers. Here is a scratch outline for paper on the Migrations exhibit:

  1. Photojournalism should be factual and informative, but it can be beautiful and artful too, as Salgado’s Migrations exhibit illustrates.
  2. The exhibit overall—powerful pictures of people uprooted, taken in 39 countries over 7 years. Salgado documents a global crisis: over 100 million displaced due to war, resource depletion, overpopulation, natural disasters, extreme poverty.
  3. Specific picture — “Orphanage” — describe subjects, framing, lighting, emotions it evokes.
  4. Salgado on the purpose of his photographs. Quote.

Formal outline

A formal outline classifies and divides the information you have gathered, showing main points, supporting ideas, and specific details by organizing them into levels of subordination.

You may be required to include a formal outline for some assignments.

Formal outlines come in two types. A formal topic outline uses single words or phrases; a formal sentence outline states every idea in sentence form.

Because the process of division always results in at least two parts, in a formal outline every I must have a II; every A, a B; and so on.

Also, items placed at the same level must be of the same kind; for example, if I is London, then II can be New York City but not the Bronx or Wall Street.

Items at the same level should also be grammatically parallel; for example, if A is “Choosing Screen Icons,” then B can be “Creating Away Messages” but not “Away Messages”.

Here are two outlines for paper on the Migrations exhibit, a formal topic outline first, followed by a formal sentence outline.

topic outline

Formal topic outline


Like a photojournalist, Salgado brings us images of newsworthy events, but he goes beyond objective reporting, imparting his compassion for refugees and migrants.

I. Sophistication of Salgado’s photographs

II. Power of “Orphanage attached to the hospital” photo

A. Three infant victims of Rwanda War

1. Label: abstract statistics

2. Photo: making abstractions real

B. Documentary vividness and dramatic contrasts of black and white

1. Black-and-white stripes of blankets

2. White eyes and dark blankets

3. Faces

a. Heart-wrenching look of baby on left

b. Startled look of baby in center

c. Glazed and sickly look of baby on right

C. Intimate vantage point

1. A parent’s perspective

2. Stress on innocence and vulnerability

III. Salgado’s ability to illustrate big issues with intimate images

Formal sentence outline


Like a photojournalist, Salgado brings us images of newsworthy events, but he goes beyond objective reporting, imparting his compassion for refugees and migrants to the viewer.

I. The images in Migrations, an exhibit of his work, suggest that Salgado does more than simply point and shoot.

II. Salgado’s photograph “Orphanage attached to the hospital at Kibumba, Number One Camp, Goma Zaire” illustrates the power of his work.

A. The photograph depicts three infants who are victims of the war in Rwanda.

1. The label indicates that there are 4,000 orphans in the camp and 100,000 orphans overall.

2. The numbers are abstractions that the photo makes real.

B. Salgado’s use of black and white gives the photo a documentary feel, but he also uses contrasts of light and dark to create a dramatic image of the babies.

1. The vertical black-and-white stripes of the blanket direct viewers’ eyes to the infants’ faces and hands.

2. The whites of their eyes stand out against the darkness of the blankets.

3. The camera’s lens focuses sharply on the babies’ faces, high-lighting their expressions.

a. The baby on the left has a heart-wrenching look.

b. The baby in the center has a startled look.

c. The baby on the right has a glazed and sunken look and is near death.

C. The vantage point of this photograph is one of a parent standing directly over his or her child.

1. The infants seem to belong to the viewer.

2. The photo is framed so that the babies take up the entire space, consuming the viewer with their innocence and vulnerability.

III. Salgado uses his artistic skill to get viewers to look closely at painful subjects, illustrating a big, complex topic with a collection of intimate, intensely moving images.

tree diagram

Tree diagram

A tree diagram is an alternative method of planning your paper’s organization.

In a tree diagram, you can see the relationships among topics and subtopics, but the sequence of topics is not specified. Tree diagrams are useful when you want to group ideas but prefer to make decisions about their sequence as you draft.

Formatting Rules for Formal Outlines

  • Place the thesis statement or claim at the beginning of the outline. It should not be numbered.
  • Start the outline with the first body paragraph. Do not include the introduction or conclusion.
  • For a topic outline, capitalize the first word of each new point and all proper nouns. Do not use periods to end each point.
  • For a sentence outline, capitalize and punctuate each item as you would any sentence.
  • Different styles of numbers and letters indicate levels of generality and importance, as in the examples on pages 53–54. Use capital Roman numerals (I, II, III) for each main point, capital letters (A, B, C) for each supporting idea, Arabic numbers (1, 2, 3) for each specific detail, and lowercase letters (a, b, c) for parts of details. Place a period and a space after each number or letter.
  • Indent consistently.
  • Most word-processing software has a feature that will indent and number your outline automatically.