Planning and Outlining

(Christchurch Cathedral, after the devastating 2011 earthquake)


Now that you’ve done some research, it’s time to plan your essay! You’ll need both an outline and a rough idea of what your argument or thesis will be. Don’t get stressed out if you don’t know exactly what your essay is going to say. The planning stage is not like drawing a precise map. It’s more like a rough sketch. Once you start painting the details, the whole picture will come into focus.

Thesis Statements

The thesis statement is your main argument. It typically comes at the end of the introduction.

The thesis encompasses everything in your essay. That’s why it needs to be quite broad. Yet if it’s too general then the reader will not read on. Compare, for instance, the following statements (arranged from most to least detailed):

One of the factors that led to the Dust Bowl was overuse of the disc plough.

The Dust Bowl of the 1930s was caused by a number of factors, including over-farming, changes in technology, and a lack of precipitation. By analyzing these causes we can try to prevent droughts in the future.

The Dust Bowl was a major disaster for the United States.

The middle thesis is best. It is both specific and general, and makes the reader excited to learn something new and interesting.

Need some more practice? Try our Thesis Statement Exercise and visit our separate page on thesis statements,


Preparing an outline is a great way to plan your essay. The traditional way to organize information is to use roman numerals for the main sections, followed by capital letters for sub-points. If you want to zoom in even more, you use lower case roman numerals, followed by lower case letters.

Here is an example of how a student has started an outline for an essay about a specific natural disaster:

I. Introduction: Indian Ocean Tsunami (2004)

A. Vivid description from a survivor

B. Explanation of Importance

C. Thesis: The Indian Ocean Tsunami taught the world the importance of early warning systems and proper education about natural disasters.

II. Impact of the disaster

A. Damage

i. Number of dead and injured

a. Statistics for individual countries

b. Comparison with relative distance from the epicentre

ii. Financial cost of the disaster

B. Other types of impact

III. How a tsunami works

IV. What made this one so deadly

V. International response

VI. Future response and preparedness

VII. Conclusion

A lot of the sections still need to be fleshed out, but this is a good start.

Remember that a section can be more than one paragraph and that it’s a good idea to include your thesis statement. As you develop your outline, try to think about whether your points connect to each other and tell a single story.

Finally, it’s up to you how detailed you want to get. If you want to add some quotations or examples, that’s great. Just make sure the main structure of your essay is clear.


  • Use colour coding to distinguish the various levels of organization
  • Make your outline with Powerpoint and place each section (including sub points) on a separate slide
  • Ask another student to review your outline to see if it makes sense


Thesis statements


A thesis summarizes what your essay is all about. Think of it as a sign post that provides a sense of direction.

A thesis usually states an argument. Even when it’s mostly descriptive, the thesis makes a strong case why the information is relevant.

A good thesis answers the question why should I care? In fact, behind every thesis statement you will find an interesting research question:

Question: How did Qatar, a tiny country with scorching temperatures, win its bid to host the World Cup in 2022?

Thesis: Though Qatar’s successful bid for the 2022 World Cup involved bribery and backroom deals, organizers such as Mohamed bin Hammam were simply exploiting the lobbying system put in place by FIFA.

Why is this a good thesis? Because it makes a provocative argument: it questions our assumptions and presents a unique case.

Where do I place the thesis?

The thesis normally comes at the end of your first paragraph.

However, in a longer piece of writing—such as an undergraduate thesis, a lengthy article, or a book—it may take you multiple paragraphs to get to your thesis.

Either way, your introduction should gradually lead up to your thesis.

What makes for a good thesis?

To answer, this question, let’s look at some examples.

Let’s say you’re analyzing Shakespeare’s Sonnet 55.  Here are some arguments you might make.  Note that your thesis can be more than just one sentence.

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 55 offers the beloved great fame, yet ironically fails to give any description of the beloved.  The result of this discrepancy is that only the poet, who has the ability to bestow poetic immortality, becomes famous.

Sonnet 55 reveals a tension between a humanist sense of time, which focuses on the here and now, and a Christian sense of time, which places greater importance on life after the “ending doom.”

Shakespeare constructs Sonnet 55 like a rational argument with distinct steps, rather than as an emotional plea.

By contrast, here are some bad thesis statements:

Sonnet 55 describes Shakespeare’s passionate love which will last forever.

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 55 was written in the Renaissance period and is still read today.

Shakespeare’s sonnet 55 contains a hidden code that reveals that he slept with a prostitute.

These theses are too broad, state the obvious, or consist of speculation. Your thesis needs to be specific and provable.

A Good Thesis is a Work in Progress

Writing is a process, which means you won’t know the exact shape your thesis will take until you do your research, discover what you want to say, and write your body paragraphs. In that sense, drafting an essay is not like building a house, where it helps to have a blueprint or model of the finished structure. You should always be ready to adapt your thesis as your argument comes into focus.

It’s not a bad idea, then, to start by just jotting down a topic or a few key words. All you need for now is a placeholder. As time goes by, and you gain a clearer idea of how things fits together, you can tweak your argument, just like you might adjust a microscope to achieve the right magnification.

In other words, good writing is inductive. It’s about openness and discovery. That’s why the worst thing you can do is to stick to a preformulated argument at all costs, even to the point of ignoring or twisting the evidence. Let the thesis come to you naturally, when you’ve figured out what you truly want to say.

More tips

Be concise

Avoid cramming too much information or detail in your thesis.  There is plenty of time to develop your argument later.

Use your own words

Don’t use someone else’s words as your thesis: save quotations for the rest of your essay.

Formulate the research question

As mentioned, see if you can turn your thesis statement into a question.  If it sounds like an interesting question, then you’re on the right track. Here’s the question that lead to one of our previous examples:

Question: Is sonnet 55 written from the heart or from the mind?

Thesis: Shakespeare constructs Sonnet 55 like a rational argument with distinct steps, rather than as an emotional plea.

In other words, the answer is that the sonnet is more logical than passionate.

Note that often you can refine your thesis further. In this case you might ask, why is this sonnet so logical? Answering this question might lead to an even more specific thesis.

If you are a very confident writer, or you want to try a more casual approach, you can replace your thesis with the research question and save your conclusion for the end of the essay. Alternatively, you can include both the question and the answer in your introduction.

Slay the three-headed monster

Not every essay has to have three points, nor do you need to list each point in your thesis. If you do decide to include subpoints, don’t forget to relate them to your overarching argument.

Minimize meta-discourse

A lot of thesis statements are filled with cumbersome phrases like This essay will argue or I will demonstrate. This kind of language is called meta-discourse, and it’s concerned with the process of writing and researching.

Try to minimize meta-discourse as much as possible:

As a close reading of the text demonstrates, and as I will argue in this paper, Winnie-the-Pooh’s love of honey can be diagnosed as an eating disorder.

Better: A psychological diagnosis of Winnie-the-Pooh reveals that he suffers from an eating disorder.

Of course, not all meta-discourse is bad. Sometimes it is important to let your own voice be heard (I believe that…).

Avoid empty words

Don’t dress up your thesis with emphatic words like important, fascinating, or interesting. Let the argument speak for itself.

Spot circular statements

Circular statements are often the result of using synonyms:

The importance of NASA lies in the critical effect it has on our understanding of space exploration.

Synonyms: importancecritical

All this sentence argues is that the subject matter is critically important. No reason is given as to why this is the case.