Does my paper flow? Tips for creating a well-structured essay.

by Jessica Diaz

A sure way to improve your paper is to strengthen the way you present your argument. Whether you only have a thesis statement or already have a fully-written essay, these tips can help your paper flow logically from start to finish.

Going from a thesis statement to a first outline

Break down your thesis statement

No matter what you are arguing, your thesis can be broken down into smaller points that need to be backed up with evidence. These claims can often be used to create a ready outline for the rest of your paper, and help you check that you are including all the evidence you should have.

Take the following thesis statement:

Despite the similarities between the documentaries Blackfish and The Cove, the use of excessive anthropomorphism in Blackfish allowed it to achieve more tangible success for animal rights movements, illustrating the need for animal rights documentaries to appeal to human emotion.

We can break the thesis down into everything that needs to be supported:

[1] Despite the similarities between the documentaries Blackfish and The Cove, [2] the use of excessive anthropomorphism in Blackfish [3] allowed it to achieve more tangible success for animal rights movements, [4] illustrating the need for animal rights documentaries to appeal to human emotion.

In the paper, we have to (1) explain and support the similarities between the two documentaries, (2) provide support for excessive anthropomorphism in Blackfish, (3) show that Blackfish achieved more tangible success than The Cove, and (4) demonstrate the importance of human emotion in animal documentaries.

Already, we have four main points that can serve as the backbone for an essay outline, and they are already in an order that makes some intuitive sense for building up the argument.

It is likely that you will need to rearrange, expand, or further break down the outline. For example, in this case we would probably need to add a paragraph that explains anthropomorphism. We also might want to move the section on differences in animal rights success earlier so that it contrasts with the similarities between the films. However, having this starting structure and identifying the main sections of the paper can allow you to go ahead and start writing!

Checking that your argument builds

Reverse outline

While writing, it is often hard to take a step back and assess whether your paper makes sense or reads well. Creating a reverse outline can help you get a zoomed-out picture of what you wrote and helps you see if any paragraphs or ideas need to be rearranged.

To create a reverse outline, go through your paper paragraph-by-paragraph. For each one, read it and summarize the main point of the paragraph in 3-5 words. In most cases, this should align closely with the topic sentence of that paragraph. Once you have gone through the entire paper, you should end up with a list of phrases that, when read in order, walk through your argument.

Does the order make sense? Are the ideas that should go together actually next to each other? Without the extra clutter, the reverse outline helps you answer these questions while looking at your entire structure at once.

Each line of your reverse outline should build on the last one, meaning none of them should make sense in isolation (except the first one). Try pretending you don’t know anything about this topic and read one of your paragraph phrases at random (or read it to someone else!). Does it make sense, or does it need more context? Do the paragraphs that go before it give the context it needs?

The reverse outline method and the line of thinking detailed above help put you in the mind of your reader. Your reader will only encounter your ideas in the order that you give offer them, so it is important to take this step back to make sure that order is the right one.

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