Paper, Essay, and Speech Writing 101 (aka the Outline)

17 Dec

Sigh. . . , English Major’s are strange.  We talk about the weirdest things just for fun. For example, whether Galadriel from J.R.R. Tolkien was actually a representation of Queen Elizabeth or Queen Victoria (and yes, that argument took FOREVER!).

Still,  English professors are even stranger.  They actually enjoy!?! writing five billion papers on whether or not Shakespeare was a prophet of his time.   Have you heard your English professor say the dreaded I don’t ever give out a 100 on a paper, because no paper can possibly be perfect.  All writers need to be aware that they have room for  improvement!” Somehow, they seem to forget that we are not all English majors!  Some are engineers, mathematicians, scientists, and computer-code writers who are only taking the class because it is required for all majors in the university.  Furthermore, this requirement comes despite the fact that they will never again care that Edgar Poe’s middle name is spelled “Allan” not “Allen” (so, um, apparently half the class misspelled his middle name in our final exam.  Prof. was furious, but we found it hilarious 🙂 )

They tried to pull the whole “You’ll never get a perfect score” on me, but I was an official English major and I was prepared.  Imagine my glee the day one such professor had to watch me walk away with an actual 100. Yes! Victory! Success!  Take that evil English professors everywhere!  Actually, though, this little trick got me through all of my writing classes with almost straight As.  Surprisingly, the same trick applies to writing an answer to an essay exam, writing a speech, or writing a presentation.

I’ll start with a disclaimer:

  1. I have pretty good grammar skills in general.  It took eleven years of primary school language & grammar classes and two semesters of pouring over old grammar books and re-reading the comments on my papers before I got over that hurdle,  but I have become really good at editing out grammar mistakes (ergo my less than part-time job as a proofreader/editor).  The trick being discussed here will not help you overcome that major issue.

With that out of the way, onward march!  The tip to writing a good paper is . . . . dun, dun, dduunn. . . the outline!  No, I’m not recommending that you write out a five page, single-spaced outline with complete sentences. I’m talking about a basic half-page, couple-words per line, double-spaced outline.  It goes something like this:

  1. Introduction
  2. Main Point 1
  3. Main Point 2
  4. Main Point 3
  5. Main Point 4 (usually not necessary in a 10-15 pg. paper–3 main points should be enough)
  6. Conclusion

Add in your thesis, and fill out a short word or phrase describing the main points, and you have the basic paper/essay/speech outline.

I’ll try to explain what each part entails, but feel free to ask if something is confusing (fair warning, I’m making up the sample main points as I go.  I have no idea if any of it would actually be provable; that’s where research would come in).  I have a more readable sample w/o all the explanations here.

  1. Introduction:  

3-5 sentences long (Keep it to half a page.  Any longer, and you’ve gone too far or are trying to talk about too much.  I always got marked down for longer introductions.)

  • Sentence 1: First sentence should introduce your main subject: if you are talking about a book, stick the author, title, and main theme in; if you are talking about a mathematical theorem, put in the name, inventor, and what it accomplishes.
“J. R. R. Tolkien’s  The Lord of the Rings tells the story of a world’s struggle against good and evil and the great things that can be accomplished when humans search within themselves for the strength to stand against overwhelming odds.”
  • Sentence 2-4: Usually this can be limited to about one sentence.  All you need here is to say that within this topic, there is an important theme that is so important to the work that it deserves further examination.
“However, in developing this famous story-line, Tolkien also looks at the important, but too often overlooked, theme of mankind’s search for immortality and the benefits and detriments such immortality entails.”
  • Final Sentence: This is going to be the dreaded Thesis Sentence, (and it should only be one sentence) but it is actually far easier to write than it seems.  First, you must know what your main points are going to be.  This means that the thesis sentence may have to wait until the paper is finished, but it will only take you about 5 minutes to write.  Start with your main topic and insert a short summary of each of your main points. Formula: The Author/Inventor/Theorem ______________ (insert what it does) by: 1)_______________; 2)______________; 3)______________.  This sets up your next paragraph, where you begin talking about your first main point.
Tolkien examines this minor theme of the benefits and detriments surrounding humanity’s search for eternal life by comparing and contrasting the motives behind the actions of Saruman and the elvesby examining the fates of those same creatures; and finally by setting up Aragorn as the symbol of human strength–a man who could have sought eternal power and life, but chose to cast it aside in the name of human-kind.”  
  1. Main Points
  • In general, undergraduate papers/essay/speeches really only ever need about 3 main points.  The Introduction and Conclusion will both take about 1/2 page.  Thus, if you are writing a 10-12 p.g. paper, you’ll have 9-11 pgs. left.  The easiest thing is to just divide those pages among the 3 main points equally, with about 3-3.5 pages devoted to each point.  That makes it easy to tell how much information you’ll need for each point and when you need to stop.
  • From the earlier sample about Lord of the Rings, the main points would be:
1) The benefits and detriments of eternal life are most clearly seen in Tolkien’s depiction of what drives the actions of Saruman and the Elves.
2)  However, Tokien makes it clear that neither the good nor the wicked, can attain immortality without some cost: for Saruman, the cost is his goodness, his place amongst the wizard counsel, and his role as a defender of men; for the elves, it is watching those they love pass before them with no hope of rejoining them in the afterlife.
3) Inbetween these two extremes, lies Aragorn, the symbol of what man can become when he accepts both the responsibility of great power and the inevitability that it will one day end.  

Note that each of these were summarized in the main thesis–that is what a thesis does, it tells the reader your main points.

  • Side tip: the Main Points will be discussed in paragraphs.  Paragraphs usually need to stop after about 1/2 page.  I found that if they ran longer, the professor said that I was either getting too chatty or I was combining paragraphs and should have split them up.  A paragraph has the same outline a paper has:

Introduction: “Although Aragorn stands as the heir to the throne of Gondor, he very clearly represents the average man throughout the book.”

3-4 Explanatory Sentences: “Aragorn undoubtedly stands as both the strongest and weakest of men in that he is both filled with the potential for leadership and the possibility of failure.  He is the son of Arathorn, leader of the Dunedain and heir to the throne of Gondor, a crown that rules thousands of men.  But at the same time, he is Estel, the child bereft of parents, raised under the frowning expectations of the Rivendell elves, and too timid to claim his throne.  By the time the story opens, Aragorn is an old man by human standards; if he were the best of men he would have claimed his throne long ago.  But Aragorn is ultimately human; he knows what greatness he could become, but he doubts his ability to get there.”

Then the Conclusion:   “However, it is the humanity within him that makes Aragorn’s later actions so very brave in the end.

  1. Conclusion:

At last, we have come to the end of this work.  The conclusion is the easiest part of all.

  • First Sentence: Repeat your thesis.  Maybe re-word it a tad (“By examining Main Point 1, 2, and 3, Tolkien successfully develops his examination of immortality.”)  Still, essentially this is word-for-word the thesis from the introduction.
  • Sentence 2-4: Summarize what you looked at in each main point.  Have 1 sentence per main point, and try concluding what you were getting at in those sections.
  • Final Sentence:  Conclusion!  Make a statement!  I generally found that saying something about how this topic is still relevant today worked for my papers.

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