So You Haven’t Started Your Essay Yet

Sometimes the hardest part of writing an essay is getting started. Even if you’re an experienced writer, each essay presents new challenges, be it the length, the subject, the complexity, or just straight up writer’s block. It happens to all of us.

Let’s say you’ve got a big essay due soon. Maybe you have a few ideas. Maybe you’ve picked a topic or written a thesis. Maybe you’re looking at a blank page. But how do you sit down and write this thing? It’s something I struggle with, and students come in to the writing center with this issue all the time. Here are a few tips I use for getting started, courtesy of everyone’s favorite tool: the outline.

Outlines are your friend!

They may seem like more work to begin with, but starting by creating an essay structure saves you so much time when you are revising and editing.

Your outline is for you, so make it yours.

Make notes to yourself using whatever language feels right to you. Your outline can be as formal or as casual as you want it to be. That may mean that your outline ends up having phrases like “Make a point with that thing we covered in the class about globalization” or “Chapter three scene with what’s his name and Jane.” You’re the only one who needs to understand what you’re talking about.

Use bullet points and lists.

Subheadings, comments, text boxes: you can use whatever format you like, but give yourself plenty of room to move things around or block them off. An outline is a visual document as well as a written one. This is the scaffolding of your essay!

Don’t delete stuff.

If you have outlined a paragraph that you later decide to scrap, don’t delete your work. Instead, move it to a secondary document. You never know when those ideas or quotations might suddenly become very useful.

Treat your outline like a set of directions.

After you’ve got your outline down, you just have to take it paragraph by paragraph, and turn those fragments into complete sentences. And for me, I’ve always found that much easier than turning a blank page into paragraphs.

Still, different styles work for different people, and this method is by no means one-size-fits all. Here are a few links to outline guides that offer some alternative explanations and structures, as well as some brainstorming tools to spark your thinking.

Essay Planning: Outlining with a Purpose

How to Make an Outline (with Template)

Writing as Process: Outlining

Tips for Organizing Your Essay

Brainstorming Techniques