5 The Writing Formula and Outlining

The Writing Formula

The Writing Formula is based upon the idea that every piece of academic writing, from a basic essay to a dissertation, has the same basic parts. These parts or sections are the introduction, background information, the main argument, counterarguments, and the conclusion. It’s important to remember that these sections do not necessarily correspond to paragraphs. Now that you are in college, it’s time to move beyond the simple five paragraph essay. Thinking of the parts of a paper as sections, rather than paragraphs, helps you to do that.

Section 1: The Introduction

The introduction has two main jobs. First, it sets the stage for the argument that you will be making, letting readers know what is coming. Second, it connects that argument to the audience’s experiences so that they will want to read the argument. For the purposes of an introductory composition course, an introduction is usually no longer than a paragraph. However, if a paper is longer than 5-6 pages, the introduction might be longer. In a 10 page paper, an introduction might be about a page. In a 200 page dissertation, the introduction will be chapter length–10-15 pages!

An introduction has three parts: a hook, an introduction to the topic, and a thesis.

  • Hook: The hook captures the reader’s attention with an intriguing question, a surprising fact, or a story that pulls them in. Your hook should relate the information in the argument to the reader’s experience, connecting the reader to the argument. (Hint: you must know who your audience is to do this effectively!)
  • Introduction to the topic: The introduction to the topic serves as a bridge between the hook and the thesis. It tells readers how the hook relates to your argument and gives them them the basic details about the topic.
  • Thesis: The thesis is a one sentence statement that tells readers what the purpose of your essay is and gives a “map” of the paper. Your thesis should include both an arguable opinion about your topic and the main points you will cover in your essay.
Street map
Image licensed under public domain.
Imagine you are giving directions from Building 6 on this map to a business on Gouvernour Ln to a friend. You know the best way to avoid traffic is to turn left on Pearl, right on Pine, right on Water, and then left on Gouvernour. What would happen if you told someone to turn left on Oyster, right on Fir, right on Aqua, and left on Ducey? They would never find their destination! Your thesis is like a map to your argument. If your map doesn’t match the directions your paper takes, your readers will be as lost as your friend in this example!

Section 2: Background Information

The background information section tells readers what they need to know to understand the topic. This information varies depending on the topic of your paper. If you are writing a paper on a piece of literature, for example, you would likely include a short summary of the piece and perhaps some information about the author and other context. For an argument on a controversial issue, you might include a summary of the two sides of the issue.

It’s important, once again, to consider your audience. What does your audience already know about the topic? What information is vital for them to understand in order for your argument to be effective? The background information section should be a balance between giving readers too much information and boring them and leaving them feeling completely lost. Like an introduction, the length of the background section will vary depending on the length of the paper and the topic. In most cases for a paper no longer than 5-6 pages, the background section will be somewhere between one and three paragraphs.

Section 3: The Argument

The argument is the main attraction of the paper. In the argument, the author lays out his/her opinion with strategically organized points that are all well supported by evidence. Because the argument is the meat of the paper, it should be the longest part of the paper. In a five page paper, the argument should be at least three of the five pages.

Image of a submarine sandwich
Pastrami Grinder” by jeffreyw licensed under CC 2.0.
If a paper were a sub sandwich…
Imagine that your paper is a sandwich. The bread is the introduction and the conclusion, the toppings are the background information, and the meat is the argument. Even if you’ve chosen your favorite bread and toppings for your sandwich, if the chef leaves out the meat or just puts in one slice (not even enough to taste!), you are likely to be disappointed. Readers feel the same disappointment if the argument of a paper isn’t solid.

Within the argument section, there should be a minimum of three main points supporting the main argument. While the length of each point may vary, each point should be at least a paragraph and should contain three very important parts:

  1. Topic sentence: The topic sentence tells readers what the paragraph will be about by echoing the wording of the thesis. Remember the street sign example? The topic sentence tells readers where they are in the progression of the argument, so it’s very important that the topic sentence uses the same wording as the thesis.
  2. Support/Evidence: Remember the three rhetorical appeals? This is where an author uses evidence to support the point. Evidence might be logical–facts, statistics, or quotes from authorities on the subject. It might also be emotional–a story or description. The main idea here is to lay out the most convincing proof you have that this point is valid.
  3. Wrap up sentence: The wrap up sentence is like a mini-conclusion for each point. It tells readers the so what? What did you just prove with all that evidence?
Image of a courtroom.
Image in the public domain.
If a paragraph were a lawyer…
Imagine a lawyer arguing a case in a courtroom. First, the lawyer states whether or not the defendant is guilty or innocent. “John Doe is guilty!” Then, the lawyer gives evidence–calls witnesses, shows images of the crime scene, states the facts of the case, etc. Finally, the lawyer gives his closing arguments: Because of all the evidence you’ve seen today, it’s clear that John Doe is guilty! A paragraph is very similar. The topic sentence states the verdict or the point of the paragraph. The evidence lays out the case, and the wrap up sentence ties it all together.

The points in the argument section should usually build upon one another. In most cases, the argument will start with the weakest point and build to the strongest one. However, in some instances, it’s better to build an argument chronologically. For example, if you are writing a paper about a novel, you might want to start at the beginning and work toward the end of the novel so readers aren’t left discombobulated. The idea is to carefully position each point in the paper to make the argument as effective as possible.

Section 4: The Counterargument

The counter-argument section functions a bit like the background section in that it is not always required. In fact, in some cases, this section should be left out entirely. The goal here is to think about what questions or objections readers might have to the argument that might still be left unaddressed. For example, if a writer has argued that a new version of an old film is better, he might explain in the counterargument that, while the new film is missing some important aspect of the original, it is still better overall.

It’s very important, once again, to know your audience! You don’t want to bring up questions or concerns that your audience doesn’t actually have because it could cause them to doubt your argument right as you’ve got them convinced. In addition, counterarguments could also be addressed throughout the essay more effectively than in a paragraph at the end of the paper. Remember, the counter-argument section is optional and should be used cautiously!

Section 5: The Conclusion

Like the introduction, the conclusion of a paper should be brief but powerful. A conclusion helps the writer to wrap up the argument successfully. One way to do this is by presenting the introduction backward. Instead of moving from broad to specific, go the other way. First, re-state the thesis, then relate it back to your topic. Finally, end with that idea that you used to connect readers to the topic. If you asked a question, give the answer in the conclusion. If you told a story, tell readers the rest of the story. Depending on the type of essay, a conclusion might also include a call to action. The goal is to leave readers feeling that the time they spent reading the essay was worth their time because they learned something new or were presented information in a way that they hadn’t considered previously.

Writing an Outline

Once you understand the five sections of an essay (introduction, background, argument, counterargument, and conclusion, it is very simple to create an outline. Some instructors will ask for an outline, but, even if they don’t ask, it’s important to write one.

Creating an outline might seem like an unnecessary step. However, outlines ensure that your argument is well-organized and stays on topic. In addition, a well-thought out outline can save hours of writing time. After all, it’s much easier to re-organize an outline than to re-write an entire essay!

Below is an informal outline created using the basic sections of an essay. In an actual essay outline, each item would include specific details about the essay instead of general headings. Instead of Point 1, for example, the outline would state the actual point.

Example Outline

  1. Introduction
    1. Hook
    2. Introduction to the Topic
    3. Thesis
  2. Background information
  3. Point 1
    1. Topic Sentence
    2. Support
    3. Wrap Up
  4. Point 2
    1. Topic Sentence
    2. Support
    3. Wrap Up
  5. Point 3
    1. Topic Sentence
    2. Support
    3. Wrap Up
  6. Conclusion

When you are finished, evaluate your outline by asking questions such as the following:

  • Do I want to tweak my planned thesis based on the information I have found?
  • Do all of my planned subtopics still seem reasonable?
  • Did I find an unexpected subtopic that I want to add?
  • In what order do I want to present my subtopics?
  • Are my supporting points in the best possible order?
  • Do I have enough support for each of my main subtopics? Will the support I have convince readers of my points?
  • Do I have ample materials for the required length of the paper? If not, what angle do I want to enhance?
  • Have I gathered too much information for a paper of this length? And if so, what should I get rid of?
  • Did I include information in my notes that really doesn’t belong and needs to be eliminated? (If so, cut it out and place it in a discard file rather than deleting it. That way, it is still available if you change your mind once you start drafting.)
  • Are my planned quotations still good choices?

Content created by Dr. Karen Palmer and licensed under CC BY NC.


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The Writing Formula and Outlining Copyright © 2020 by Dr. Karen Palmer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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