- identify strategies for drafting from an outline
- identify considerations unique to early drafts
- identify the value of multiple drafts
We’re ready to dive into the process of writing, proper.
As we do, consider these observations from Dr. Pat Thomson, from the School of Education at The University of Nottingham.
There is a strong temptation to send things off too early. Finishing a first draft usually feels like a win – even a triumph. You didn’t know that it was going to be possible to write that much and here it is – all your words in one place. You rush to get it to your professor and then wait impatiently for the response. And when it comes, it suggests major revisions… Corrections beyond editing? This is a disaster. I am hopeless. The thesis/paper is doomed. I will never finish. The professor is an unfeeling monster.
Not true. All it takes is revision, some of which could have been done in the first place if we hadn’t felt so darned elated that we’d actually produced a text.
But on the other hand…some people are feel deeply that their writing isn’t going to be good enough, now in the first draft, and probably ever. All of the research on writer’s block suggests that people who aim for perfection the first time round are likely to seriously inhibit their writing. They agonize over phrases, work on a first sentence until they can’t face it any more, take weeks to get a few pages written to their impossibly high expectations. We often see this kind of person characterized in movies – the unsuccessful writer who begins confidently on a first sentence but some hours later is surrounded by crumpled-up papers and sits despondently, staring sadly at a blank screen. Academic writers do this too.
Part of the problem seems to be that in conversations about academic writing we don’t talk enough about the inevitability of the crappy first draft and the importance of revising. We don’t suggest that it takes more than one go to reach the levels of polished prose that we admire. But really – let me reiterate – it doesn’t happen straight away. If we just read finished articles and never see work in progress – and how many of us actually do get to see the work of experienced writers along the way – then we have no idea how much revising good academic writers actually do.
Using an Outline to Write a Paper
The main difference between outlining a reading and outlining your own paper is the source of the ideas. When you outline something someone else wrote, you are trying to represent their ideas and structure. When outlining your own paper, you will need to focus on your own ideas and how best to organize them. Depending on the type of writing assignment, you might want to incorporate concepts and quotations from various other sources, but your interpretation of those ideas is still the most important element. Creating an outline based on the principles outlined above can help you to put your ideas in a logical order, so your paper will have a stronger, more effective argument.
Step 1: Figure out your main points and create the headings for your outline
Once you have come up with some ideas for your paper, you will need to organize those ideas. The first step is to decide what your main points will be. Use those main ideas as the headings for your outline. Remember to start with your introduction as the first heading, add headings for each main idea in your argument, and finish with a conclusion.
For example, an outline for a five-paragraph essay on why I love my dog might have the following headings:
II. BODY PARAGRAPH 1: My Dog is a Good Companion
III. BODY PARAGRAPH 2: My Dog is Well-Behaved
IV. BODY PARAGRAPH 3: My Dog is Cute
Since the topic is why I love my dog, each of the body paragraphs will present one reason why I love my dog. Always make sure your main ideas directly relate to your topic!
You can order your main ideas based on either the strength of your argument (i.e. put your most convincing point first) or on some other clear organizing principle. A narrative on how you became a student at this college would most likely follow a chronological approach, for example. Don’t worry if you are not completely satisfied with the ordering; you can always change it later. This is particularly easy if you are creating your outline in a word-processing program on a computer: you can drag the items into different positions to test out different orderings and see which makes the most sense.
Step 2: Add your supporting ideas
The next step is to fill in supporting ideas for each of your main ideas. Give any necessary explanations, descriptions, evidence, or examples to convince the reader that you are making a good point. If you are using quotes, add those here. Remember to include the appropriate citation based on whichever format your teacher requires; having that information in your outline will speed things up when you write your paper (since you won’t have to go hunting for the bibliographic information) and make it easier to avoid plagiarism.
To continue the example above, a writer might fill in part II of the outline as follows:
II. Body Paragraph 1: My Dog is a Good Companion
A. My dog is fun
1. My dog likes to play
2. My dog likes to go on walks
B. My dog is friendly
1. My dog likes to cuddle
2. My dog likes people
This section is focused on the idea that “I love my dog because he is a good companion.” The two first-level subheadings are general reasons why he is a good companion: he is fun (A) and he is friendly (B). Each of those ideas is then further explained through examples: My dog is fun because he like to play and go on walks. I know my dog is friendly since he enjoys cuddling and like people. Even more detail could be added by including specific games my dog likes to play, behaviors that tell me he like to go on walks, and so. The more detail you add, the easier it will be to write you paper later on!
In terms of how to organize your subheadings, again try to present these supporting ideas in a logical order. Group similar ideas together, move from general concepts to more specific examples or explanations, and make sure each supporting idea directly relates to the heading or subheading under which it falls.
When you have finished adding supporting ideas, read through the outline to see if there is anywhere you think your argument has holes or could be further fleshed out. Make sure that your ideas are in the most logical order. Don’t be afraid to test out different orderings to see what makes the most sense!
Step 3: Turn your headings and subheadings into complete sentences
Once you have added as much detail as possible and your outline is complete, save it as a new file on your computer (or type it into the computer). If your main and supporting ideas in the outline are not already in sentence form, turn each item into one or more complete sentences. This will help you to see more clearly idea where to divide up your paragraphs. When writing a short to medium length paper, each heading (or main idea) will typically correspond to one paragraph. For longer papers, each heading may be a section and your first (or even second) level of subheading will eventually become your paragraphs. See how many sentences fall under each heading to get a rough idea of what correspondence makes the most sense for your paper.
Step 4: Construct your paragraphs
Next, start at the beginning of your outline and go through point by point. Delete the outline formatting (indentations and letter/numeral designations) and start to put your sentences together into paragraphs. You may need to add transition phrases or even extra sentences to make sure your prose flows naturally. You might also find that even though your ideas seemed to make sense in the outline, you need to add still more details here or change the order of your ideas for everything to fully make sense. You may even find that you have too many ideas or that some ideas are not really all that relevant and need to be cut. That is perfectly normal. The outline is a plan to help you get organized, but you always have the flexibility to change it to fit the needs of your assignment.
Remember to start a new paragraph whenever you introduce a new idea (or when a paragraph has gotten very long and the reader needs a break). Again, you will probably want to add transition phrases or sentences to connect each paragraph to what came before and to help the reader follow your argument.
Once you have finished turning your outline into paragraphs, you should have a decent first draft of your paper. Now you just need to proofread and revise (and repeat) until you are ready to turn in your assignment!
Crappy First Drafts
Essay assignments are such high-stakes tasks, that we feel a lot of pressure to do serious work, and perform well, at every stage of the writing process. Sure, prewriting can be kind of fun, and outlining can get us excited about the possibilities a project can hold.
At the time of starting to write a first draft, however, the pressure starts to mount. Sometimes we can feel locked into the need to get everything perfect, that it can be paralyzing.
The thing to remember is that EVERY first draft is crappy. Everyone’s.
Consider this blog post by Melissa Ward:
“The first draft of anything is shit.” —Ernest Hemingway
I should be able to stop here, leaving you with Hemingway’s sage and true statement, and go work onto something else, maybe my own shitty first draft of a blog post. But I won’t because I know most of you refuse to accept this truth.
No, instead you think if you beat your head against your desk hard enough and long enough, you will craft some 24k golden prose, words so sweet and deftly written that you’ll bring tears to the eyes of babes.
Well you won’t. So stop it.
Still don’t believe me? Are you saying, “Melissa, how do you know how well I write?” To this, I say, that doesn’t matter. If you can’t learn to write a shitty first draft, getting whatever it is out of your system, then you’re never going to have the energy to keep writing. You’re not going to learn how to take risks, because you’ll never let yourself write anything less than perfect on the first go.
FREAKING STOP IT. Write some garbage. Let it spew forth, and once you’ve finally emptied that stinking pustule, take a step away and come back later. Put on some gloves and dig through the pile you emptied out on those pages, and you’ll begin to find some gems. Use them to write a good second draft, and then repeat until you have an excellent final draft.
If you don’t believe me, then see what Anne Lamott has to say about it. Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life has a chapter titled “Shitty First Drafts.” The book was required reading when I took my short fiction workshop in college, and it’s a great book for all writers.
The shitty first draft isn’t about encouraging bad writing … it’s about encouraging writing AT ALL. You’ll never write a page if you keep stopping yourself within the first sentence or two and rewriting. Free yourself and learn to love the shitty first draft.
The crappy first draft can be very liberating. If it doesn’t have to be good, then we feel a lot more freedom to get started and get it over with.
Trust in the process. Write crap. Plenty of time later to refine it.
Time Management for College Writers
Your only goal during the first draft is to get things down on the page so that you can start rewriting. The first draft has no other value. Regardless of how many faults it has, the first draft accomplishes its entire purpose merely by coming into existence. — Richard K. Neumann, Legal Reasoning and Legal Writing
Budgeting the time it takes to create an essay is really important, but it’s not usually explicitly discussed in classrooms. Consider the following advice as you map out your time between the date you’re given a writing assignment and the date it’s due.
- Plan on 20 minutes, minimum, per typed page.
- Start writing your rough draft as soon as you can. Once you have those first words on paper, the rest is much easier.
- Find your best time of day and write then. Never put off writing until you are tired or sleepy. Tired writing is almost always bad writing.
- For short essays, allow an absolute minimum of 10 minutes per paragraph. “Short” means fewer than 3 pages of typed text. Thus, for a four-paragraph essay allow at least 40 minutes for the first draft.
- For longer essays, allow an absolute minimum of one hour to produce every three typed pages of rough draft. You don’t have to write it all at one sitting, but budget enough total time to complete a rough draft without feeling any time pressure.
- Once your rough draft is done, leave it until the next day (at least!) before revising it. This way you’ll be able to look at it with “fresh eyes” and recognize room for improvement.
You and your classmates may assume that the first draft is the most important part of writing. Actually, the first draft is the LEAST important part. The analysis and reflection you do in the process of revision and proofreading are much more valuable contributions toward a strong final product.
- Allow at least the same amount of time for revision and proofreading as you did for writing the rough draft. The more important the writing project, the more time will be needed in revising and proofreading. This means that a very important three-page, typed paper would require a total of at least two to three hours to complete in final form.
- Revise first. Allow enough time before your final deadline to rewrite nine-tenths of your paper (or to start over with some components, if necessary).
- Leave enough time to read the text out loud or to have someone else read it out loud to you. This is one of the most important things you can do to as a scholar to ensure the quality of your text. Your ears will detect elements that are out of place more readily than your eyes will see them.
- If your mother language is not English, or if you have more than average difficulty with spelling, punctuation, or grammar, consult a tutor. While you don’t want anyone else to rewrite your paper, a native speaker of English can offer advice and coaching on wording things most effectively.
- Proofread last. The time necessary for this process depends on the length of the paper. The best method for this is to print out the paper, proofread it in hard copy (or, even better, have someone else correct it), make the necessary corrections on the computer text, and only then print out the final version.
- Save your final copy in several ways. Back it up on your computer files, through a cloud storage, on a flash drive, and/or in your school’s electronic class platform. You never know when the unexpected will happen. Almost every student experiences a major electronic data loss at some point, and it can be devastating.
- Keep secure, permanent electronic and paper files of all papers you write in college. You never know when you may need to consult them again.