We all have moments when we start to write an academic essay and simply don’t know what to say. Or maybe we know what we want to say, but after hours of writing, the essay takes a turn in a completely different direction.
After freewriting, researching, and drafting, sometimes we realize that there are more important topics to address than our original topic idea. If this happens, we need to re-work other parts of the essay to compliment new ideas, but that's not the end of the world. However, it can be frustrating, especially when working on an academic essay that is required to be on a particular topic.
As simple as it may seem, I almost always use outlining to sketch out my ideas and to stay on track.
Traditional outlines--you know, the ones with the roman numerals and the precise indentations--are often too confining for writers who are still in the preliminary stages of drafting. There are a couple strategies that I find much more effective: one that works similarly to clustering* or webbing and one that I will term “quotation outlining.”
When you cluster, you start with an idea and list multiple points that connect to that idea. Let’s say you start with “social networking” as a potential topic. Clustered ideas may include “online privacy,” “Facebook,” or “cyberbullying.” Then, you take these new threads and think of other related ideas. Take “cyberbullying” as an example. You may jot down factual information newspaper articles you have read, specific language from recent legislation that has passed, or ideas for how to more globally address the issue.
Once you hash out these ideas, clustering allows you to visually see the knowledge you already had. Because it relies mainly on what is already known, it is most effective in the beginning stages of topic brainstorming.
Quotation outlining is more helpful once you have a clearer idea for a topic, have done a bit of research, but are still unsure what angle to take. (And actually, quotation outlining can be helpful even if you do have a clear plan; it allows your evidence to all be in the same place!) Working with the texts that you plan to use for your essay, compile all relevant quotations. If you’re not sure yet what will be relevant, type out the quotations that seem most interesting. Then, organize those quotations by theme. What themes surface? Do some of the quotations overlap? Do you have more quotations about, say, digital copyright laws than you do about digital design?
Once you have organized evidence, you can make a clearer choice about what argument to make. Then, the themes of the quotation can help guide your essay.
While there are multiple types of outlining, and brainstorming more generally, these are two that I have found helpful. For the last few years, I have always done some form of quotation outlining for any major essay that I have to write. It allows me to see all my research in one space, and it allows me to discover different themes that I may have missed before.
*The University of Richmond’s Writing Center website has a helpful article that gives more information on clustering/webbing.