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Academic Skills

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Academic Skills

Organizing an Argument

Prewriting and Making an Outline

  1. Blocking an Argument
    1. Beyond the 5-paragraph essay
    2. A flexible essay model
  2. Mind Mapping
  3. Free Writing
  4. T-Charts
  5. Formal Outline
  6. Outline Checklist

Prewriting involves any writing or work that you do before you attempt a formal draft of your paper. Some pre-writing strategies help you to develop your thesis or to refine it; others help you find the best way to organize your ideas. While prewriting activities take some time up-front, they can save you time and agony when you write your draft.

There are different prewriting strategies; experiment with different approaches to see which ones work best for you.

Blocking an Argument

One of the important goals of prewriting is to identify your major ideas and which examples you will use to support them. Central to this is the process of blocking your argument, which involves breaking your thesis down into smaller arguments that need to be developed.

While no one-size fits all model exists for blocking an argument, different prewriting activities can help you to separate main points from examples and determine the best order in which to present your arguments.

Mind Mapping

A mind map is an informal, pictorial outline showing all of your ideas and supporting details. It allows you to creatively explore ideas free from the constraints of sentences and paragraphs. Writers who have difficulty with formulating complete thoughts without a clear sense of direction or who are global rather than linear thinkers can benefit from mind maps.

To create a mind map, write your tentative thesis in the centre of a blank page. From the centre, draw branches and record ideas that, from your reading and thinking, you associate with the thesis. Add twigs to these branches labeled with supporting details. Create as many branches and twigs as you can. Mind maps can be hand-written, or you can use software to make a digital mind map.

The mind map cannot show the order in which to pursue ideas, but it can suggest directions and the connections between your ideas and evidence. The mind map helps you better understand your topic and thesis. It can also be the basis for a more formal outline; from it, you can determine which arguments should be main arguments, which should be supporting details, and which arguments do not support your thesis.

Many software programs can help you to create mind maps. For example, Inspiration (which can be accessed from any Trent computer) allows you to create intricate, illustrated mind maps. There are many other programs available online as well.


Writing is not just a way of recording information; it is a way to actively think through ideas. As we write, we explore our thoughts, redefining, explaining, and focusing them as we go. Because writing offers this opportunity for reflection, it can be useful to engage in exploratory writing before you begin a formal draft.

Free-writing allows you to think, but frees you from the anxiety of trying to obey the rules of correct writing. Many people find that in free-writing they can see connections that they couldn’t see when they were trying to construct perfect sentences and paragraphs.

  1. Begin free-writing by giving yourself a specific time period, ten minutes or so, and write on your subject for the whole time. It helps to focus on a specific aspect of your topic.
  2. Write whatever comes into your mind; do not stop to review what you have written, and do not lift your pen from the paper or your fingers from the keyboard. The idea is to keep yourself writing so that your internal editor does not have the opportunity to make you self-conscious or faint of heart.
  3. Review what you have written and look for patterns, repeated words, or ideas that develop through writing. The free write can help you to refine your argument and determine a possible structure for your ideas.


One of the goals of any form of prewriting is to differentiate between main points and supporting examples. One of the simplest ways to work toward this goal is the T-chart. You list main points on one side of your chart and supporting examples on the other. This helps ensure that you have specific examples to illustrate each of your ideas. You can also ensure that your major arguments are grouped together with these supporting examples and begin to see how to organize your paragraphs.

Main Points






T-charts are particularly useful when you are working under time pressure and do not have time to create a formal outline. Many students use T-charts when writing essay exams as a quick, concise method of organizing their main points and supporting evidence. 

Formal Outlining

A formal essay outline is hierarchical and linear. It should establish the relationships between main points and subordinate points, between subordinate points and details, and between all points and the thesis. Above all, the outline should provide a sketch of the development of the thesis, not just a list of headings or topics.

The formal outline establishes relations among ideas in two ways: through a numbering scheme and the way points are displayed on the page. Related ideas are grouped together into the main sections or parts of the essay, and within each of these sections, general and specific ideas are recorded. These divisions can be further broken down, but remember to remain somewhat flexible; your ideas and the outline usually develop and change as you write.

There is no one model for an essay structure, but the sample outline illustrates how to create structure and establish relationships between ideas. The outline for your essay may have a different number of major sections or subsections. Note also, that your essay's outline does not have to be balanced: each major section does not have to be of equal length with equal sub-sections, etc.

Example of a Formal Outline

  1. Thesis:
  2. Supporting Argument A
    1. Idea 1
    2. Idea 2
  3. Supporting Argument B
    1. Part I
      1. Idea 1
      2. Idea 2
    2. Part II
      1. Idea 1
        1. Example a
        2. Example b
      2. Idea 2

Blocking Supporting Arguments - Example

Outline Checklist

Do a simple visual check of your outline for three main qualities: motion, analysis, and substance.

  1. Motion: Do the main divisions of your thesis move somewhere? You should take mental steps from section to section, not inch your way along.
  2. Analysis: Is the thesis clearly supported by the main sections? Does each sub-section of the paper support its main section? Does the blocking of the argument logically fit with the argument?
  3. Substance. Are your assertions backed up by evidence? Look at the level of detail in your outline. Is there sufficient and convincing evidence that backs up your assertions? Without this, you may write a witty, insightful and even elegant essay, but if you do not show your reader how your insights illuminate the material itself, you will not be rewarded for your efforts.