Frequently Asked Questions
How do I write an outline?
- Brainstorm your ideas.
- Decide what the three main points will be.
- Take one point at a time to create sub-points.
If you learn by seeing words on paper, you may enjoy filling out the blank outline formats that are also on this page. If you learn best by hearing and listening, you speak through every step you make. You can even record your ideas to listen to them later. Don’t worry about people listening. All great geniuses talk to themselves. If you learn by doing and have written all of your ideas on separate note cards, arrange your notes into an outline form, using the cards as if they were a puzzle. Move the cards around until they make sense to you. You can even color code if you want! When you have an order you like, write it down on a piece of paper that you can look at again.
How do I avoid plagiarism?
You can come up with great ideas and support them with compelling facts, but do you have any citations after that support? Ask yourself where you got the information that you use in your paper. Maybe you’re thinking, “Oh, I know that from previous experience.” Perhaps you do, but the paper must cite a written document if it is a paper that asks for outside research. Try to find that fact in actual writing. If it is actually true, you should be able to find it without much of a problem. Your job is to use information, not create it.
How do I keep my main points from overlapping too much?
Do you feel like your paper is just repeating itself? Can one idea fit into another? Sometimes when your paper just is not working, you might need to go back to putting your ideas into categories. Pretend you are looking at the paper for the first time. Ask yourself, “Is this the best spot for this idea? Could it go under one of my other ideas? Are main ideas 1 and 2 pretty much the same thing? Could I combine them?”
You may have to do more brainstorming and researching, but at least you would only have to think about and research for one or two new main points, not a whole paper.
- If you remember thing better by seeing them, drawing your ideas you have come up with and placing them into different boxes may help you realize how different the ideas are and how they can be differently categorized.
- If you learn better by doing, open a new document and drag the sentences to new sections of the paper. Example: The ideas about students’ improving sleep cycles will go to the top of the paper, and ideas about students’ academic success will be moved to the bottom.
- If you remember things better by listening, read your ideas out loud and decide out loud of they should be put into new categories. Repeat yourself using different words to make sure your idea makes sense.
Here’s an example of a paper outline that needed to be reorganized. The thesis for the paper was, “College students should volunteer in their communities on a weekly basis.”
Student’s first outline
- Volunteering teaches college students the value of service.
- Volunteering teaches college students to budget their time wisely.
- Volunteering teaches college students discipline.
While all these may be true, the idea of budgeting time wisely could probably fit into discipline.
The writer may be thinking of other forms of discipline, such as having responsibility in the place they volunteer, etc. However, budgeting time could easily fit into learning discipline. Now, the writer is looking for a third main point. Return to the brainstorming section of this resource guide. The writer, fortunately, will have much more information coming into the brainstorm than he would initially because he has already done his research.
Explore other practical results, such as college students gaining skill they can use in their future careers, college students can meet people with similar interests, etc.
The writer’s new outline could look like this:
- Volunteering teaches college students the value of service.
- Volunteering teaches college students personal discipline.
- Volunteering provides college students with new skills.
How do I get started on my paper?
- Go over the assignment’s requirements. Did you read the assignment carefully? Do you understand what the teacher wants?
- Have you picked a topic? What interests you specifically about what you are supposed to write about? What first came into your mind when you heard about the paper? What are your opinions on what interests you? Everybody has an opinion, even if they say they do not. Decide what your opinion is. Then, you can begin researching.
- Brainstorm out loud. Don’t start writing your ideas down until you at least have a couple. Ask yourself questions to explore every possibility.
- Ask the “W” questions: “Where did this happen? When is this important? How does this affect you, me, the community, our country, etc.? Why research this at all? Why is it important?
- Talk about your topic with a Writing Center coach, a friend, and anybody who will listen. The more you speak aloud, the more your confidence will grow and you will become excited about how much you do know.
- Don’t just have great ideas but no plan. Using the brainstorm you have already started, begin creating an outline that uses your own ideas. Try to group those ideas together in separate categories.
- If you learn by doing, perhaps write each idea on a piece of paper and place it in different corners of the table, different boxes, etc. to show what categories you would place them in.
- Set yourself some goals. Example: “I will go to the Writing Center tomorrow to get an opinion on my work so far. After that, I will try to make a sentence outline.”
May I use the word "I" in my paper?
Only within a quotation from one of your sources! In general, the pronouns “I” and “we” should be avoided when writing for a college class. If you don’t know how to replace the word “we” in a sentence, ask yourself “Who is ‘we’ referring to? Americans? College students? Teenagers?” Then, use your answer instead of “we.”
There are several options you can use to replace either of these pronouns. Here is a chart with some examples of how to replace “I” or “we”:
|Instead of This||Use This|
|I believe that 16-year-olds should have the right to vote.||There are several reasons that 16-year-olds should have the right to vote.|
|In this paper, I will show you how…||This argument (paper) intends to prove that….|
|I can understand why…||It is understandable why….|
|I took a sample….||A sample was taken…|
|In the next paragraph, I will discuss…||The next paragraph will discuss…|
|We love to eat fast food.||Americans love to eat fast food.|
|I disagree because….||This is incorrect information because…|
|I find this hard to believe…||This fact does not seem likely because…|
|To be a good student I must….||A good student must…|
Another way to cut down on this problem is to avoid telling personal stories in your paper unless the assignment is a reflection paper that asks you to use your personal experience. State your opinions as fact, then use your sources and evidence as support for your point of view.
Instead of saying, “I do not believe that tests are a good way to measure intelligence. First…”
Say something like, “Tests are not a good way of measuring intelligence for several reasons. First…”
May I use contractions?
Do not use them. Contractions are considered unprofessional for the writing you will be doing, yet they are very easy to avoid. Write out the entire two words.
Example: “Don’t use water to put out an oil fire in your kitchen,” becomes, “Do not use water to put out an oil fire in the kitchen.”
My paper is too short, how do I make it longer?
Are there enough supporting points? Did you explain your points so that all the questions are answered, or did you leave any questions hanging? Did you begin with a thesis statement that is too specific? Go back to the link about writing a good thesis statement.
As a general rule, each sub-point should have at least two illustrations to support it from the real world, research, examples, etc. Be sure to look at your support from several angles. Don’t become so desperate for length that you decide to fill in your paper with more quotations from your resources. You may need some more information in your paper, but try to write what you found in your own words, too. Remember, this is your paper, not a scrapbook of things other people have said. Use paraphrasing and summarizing as well as explaining how the information proves what you are writing about.
How do I write introductory and concluding paragraphs?
You may feel like there is nothing left to write, but the introduction and conclusion serve a special purpose. The introduction shows the reader why he should read the rest of the paper. The conclusion reminds the reader of the lasting value of what he just read. Because they are the first and the last paragraphs of the entire paper, the introduction and conclusion are the sections of your paper the reader will remember the most.
Make sure that the introduction does not start with the thesis statement, a common mistake, unless your teacher specifically told you to. Begin more broadly, getting more specific until you get to the last sentence of the introductory paragraph, which will be your thesis statement.
Watch out for overly general statements such as, “From the dawn of time” and “Since mankind took his first breath.” Also, don’t begin presenting all of your research in the introduction. That should go in the body of the paper to support your main points. Don’t say what all of your main points will be unless your teacher tells you to.
In this paper, I will show you how recycling benefits the planet, creates more jobs, and teaches responsibility.
Recycling makes the world better in three specific ways.
Now we want to know what those ideas are and will read your paper to find out!
Be sure to begin with general statements about your topic and to capture the reader’s attention with your professional style—not with jokes or references to popular culture (e.g. movies, celebrity news, or references to your favorite Disney character). Here is an example of an acceptable introduction. The topic for the following examples will be based on the thesis statement: “Every American should consider recycling.”
Americans pride themselves on their ability to explore opportunities and make a better world from what they have discovered. The typical American, however, often overlooks some of the simplest and most meaningful opportunities available. The issue of recycling is not a new topic, but most Americans are not aware of its value to everyday society. Because of the many benefits the simple act of recycling produces, every American should consider recycling.
Let’s look at this paragraph bit-by-bit:
- The first sentence was positive, and it addressed its target audience, the typical American. It was not necessarily about recycling, but it spoke of the opportunities recycling will undoubtedly fit under.
- The next sentence transitioned into a problem, and now the reader is curious to know what that problem is.
- The third sentence revealed what the paper is about, recycling. The paragraph is becoming more specific.
- The final sentence shows the solution, makes a claim, and is your thesis statement.
For the conclusion, begin with a restatement of your thesis statement (saying the same thing but using different words for the sake of creativity and flow).
Introduction paragraph thesis statement: “Because of the many benefits recycling produces, every American should consider recycling.”
Restated thesis: “Recycling offers the American a simple but rewarding opportunity to benefit himself and those around him.”
The conclusion should become gradually broader in its claims. Remember that your reader has read the entire paper and knows what it’s about. There is no need to remind him of every point. Also, the conclusion should show the reader what the lasting value of his argument is. How does it fit in the big picture?
Recycling offers the American a simple but rewarding opportunity to benefit himself and those around him. A wise use of the nation’s resources cannot help but create a better environment for its people, and recycling is a small step one can take to create this improved lifestyle. Through practicing recycling, Americans can once again prove themselves to be both ingenious in their ideas as well as sensitive to the global needs around them.
Again, let’s take this paragraph sentence-by-sentence:
- The first sentence was the restated thesis. It says the same thing that the thesis in the introduction does, but it is definitely not the same sentence.
- The second sentence is slowly broadening out. It is addressing the problem again and showing the solution that will occur.
- The third and final sentence reminds the reader of the first sentence of the introduction, telling the reader once again about how Americans want to make life better for themselves and others.
- The word “global” especially broadens the topic, showing that recycling affects life outside America as well, although the focus remains on the American’s responsibility.
A few helpful tips:
- Be sure to avoid using threats in the conclusion: “If Americans do not recycle, the world will become a gigantic junkyard that will kill millions.” Keep the tone positive and professional.
- Keep these paragraphs short and to the point. For shorter papers, a few sentences will usually be enough. These paragraphs are meant to show off the body of your paper, not overpower it.
I used too much space just covering one topic in my paper, how do I make it shorter?
Did you merely plop quotes into you paper? Did you explain anything in your own words? Look at some of the information you have cited and try to summarize/paraphrase if appropriate. Remember that this is a paper of your ideas, and you are using information to support your good ideas, not take them over.
Sometimes, papers are simply wordy. Read your paper out loud. Are there sentences that you have to take several breaths to get through? Are you saying the same thing over and over? If you come to something like this, try to say it in another way that is more concise. Ask yourself: What parts of this paragraph are essential? What parts are just repeats of what I’ve said before? Is this just old information? Obvious statements?
I feel like I keep saying the same thing over and over again. How do I fix that?
Are you using words redundantly? Sometimes this is the case because you want your paper to look longer. Try to be concise. Look at each sentence separately to be sure each word is important. Then, see how it fits in the paragraph. Is there another sentence that says the same thing in slightly different words? Both sentences are most likely not needed if this is the case. Don’t feel discouraged about your paper growing shorter, especially if the paper is already on the short side. If this is becoming a problem, see the “Too Short” section above. One thing to look out for is the “needless rephrasing mistake.”
According to Nolan, “75% of Old Navy employees quit their jobs after 6 months” (55). This shows that three quarters of the people who worked at Old Navy soon left that company within a very short span of time.
The second sentence adds no new information. It’s the same thing in different words. Ask yourself the “so what?” question as you connect the facts with the claim of this thesis statement. Why is this important? What is the big idea?
According to Nolan, “75% of Old Navy employees quit their jobs after six months” (55). This and other examples cited by Nolan display the company’s need for meaningful employee benefits that encourage employees to invest their time in the company.
All my sentences sound the same! How do I fix them?
Perhaps all the sentences are simple sentences, meaning they are just a subject with a verb. Sometimes you might be afraid to write in complex sentences simply because you are afraid of making grammatical mistakes such as fragments or run-ons.
Try to vary your sentences. Ask yourself, “Could these sentences be combined and still be clear?” Again, reading out loud often helps you see these problems. You cannot read out loud enough. Sometimes, a bit of “dramatic” reading out loud will help you see your mistake. If you change something, be sure you can explain why you changed it.
How do I make my paper sound better? It just doesn't flow.
Reading your paper out loud will help you hear what your paper sounds like. Do the sentences seem disconnected? The logic may be fine, but maybe there are not any transition words that connect the sentences so that the reader can see this logic. Use phrases such as “According to [the author’s name],” “Consequently,” “Therefore,” “Not only [this], but also [that],” “However,” etc.
Don’t get overzealous with the transitions and use them in every sentence. A transition word should not be used simply because it is a transition word. Ask yourself these questions:
- Do the two sentences make sense without a transition connecting them?
- Would it sound better with a transition phrase?
- What is being proved?
- Is this a progress the paper is discussing?
- A cause-and-effect relationship?
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Need More Help?
There are two resources that you may find extremely helpful:
- 24-Hour Writing Help (Tutor.com): Through this service CCCK students (residential & virtual) can receive 24/7 access to writing services. This includes live writing assistance, essay drop-off and review, and ESL writing support. This is a free service to all CCCK students.
- Coaching and Writing Support: The Student Success Center offers free writing support to all CCCK students (residential & virtual). Writing coaches are happy to help you with brainstorming for your next paper, developing your writing style, understanding MLA and APA formatting, and using correct grammar and spelling. The Success Center is located on the third-floor of Science Hall.