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.

“Do you know what a reverse outline is?”

By Daniel Gross

When you’re struggling to move forward in a paper, you can always move in reverse. Let’s say you have a draft, but you’re stuck. You’re not sure if the reader can follow each step of your argument. Now could be the time to swing by the Writing Center. But another option is a reverse outline, which is basically what it sounds like––an outline that comes after you’ve drafted an essay.

A reverse outline isn’t written on a separate sheet of paper. Instead, it’s scribbled in the margins of the draft. You write down the key points of your essay next to each paragraph. As you do, you start to see how the argument builds and shifts. It can be a versatile tool to illuminate your thesis, tighten your structure, and make things flow faster than Niagara. Let’s look more closely at what a reverse outline can do for you.

How is a reverse outline different from a regular outline?

Regular outlines are written before essays begin. “I. Introduction and thesis,” you might write, continuing: “II. Contextualize my topic.” Let’s pretend you’re arguing that the United Nations should protect the Arctic giraffe from dangerous oil drilling. Your outlined third paragraph might illustrate the problem you’re addressing by trying to show that the Arctic giraffe is in danger of extinction. Alternately, the third paragraph could show that the UN has a legal mandate to protect endangered species in general (which implies that you’ll later argue that the Arctic giraffe, as an endangered species, also merits protection).

One problem with this sort of outline is that it suggests that your ideas will be fixed before you start writing. But your essay structure can and should shift as you figure out what you’re really saying, which is why some writers don’t find outlines helpful.  If you don’t outline before you write, you’ll still need to figure out if your structure is working. Is the reader following me? Is my structure logical? Does the essay flow?

That’s why we need reverse outlines.

How do I do a reverse outline?

Let’s pretend that based on my regular outline, I write the following three paragraphs after an introduction.

[2] In 1980, the United Nations intervened to protect the Hawaiian camel. Hawaiian camels had long been threatened by intensive pineapple harvests. When the local farmer collective introduced a plan to double their cultivated land, scientists argued that the plan would seriously affect local camel populations. The UN, responding to this news, suspended pineapple expansion through 2020.

[3] The Arctic giraffe lives along the temperate sea coast of Greenland. Thanks to their long necks, they thrive in the shallow waters of the continental shelf. Their heads, adorned with blue fur, rest just above the water to catch migrating fish which swim by.

[4] In the past 5 years, Arctic giraffe populations have fallen drastically. A June 2005 Nature paper,  “Where have all the Arctic giraffes gone?,” raised a note of alarm in the scientific community. Its authors argued that oil drilling was to blame. Because drills produced destructive sound waves in the waters off Greenland, giraffes were adapting their behaviors by lifting their heads fully out of the water. Because these giraffes became significantly more conspicuous to passing fish, the scientists argued, these giraffes lost their main source of food.

Now I have my basic ideas down on paper, and I want to see if they make sense. Time for a reverse outline. We start with paragraph 2. What’s it about? It seems to give us a historical example in which the UN intervened, perhaps as a comparison to the case of the Arctic giraffe. We’ll assume that the introduction and its thesis told us the essay’s central claim––that the UN should protect Arctic giraffe species. With this in mind, we might scribble the following into the margin:

Illustrates historical case of UN species protection

For paragraph 3, we might try:

Introduces background of Arctic giraffe

For paragraph 4, we could write:

Shows that oil drilling may cause population loss

Now that we know the structure of these early paragraphs, we can re-examine the essay for clarity. First, we might ask: does a reader understand why it’s important that we know about the Hawaiian camel? The answer is probably not. Using the note we wrote––illustrates historical case of UN species intervention––we might write a topic sentence that makes the paragraph’s function more obvious, like: “The United Nations has historically protected species endangered by human behavior.” Now readers will understand that the paragraph is establishing precedent for the present case of the Arctic giraffe.

The function of paragraph 3 is more obvious, since it offers general information that relates to the species of interest. A different question is relevant, however: is this the best location for the paragraph? For instance, if this became paragraph 2, readers could be certain that the entire essay focuses on Arctic giraffes. But we’d also notice that the paragraph about Hawaiian camels wouldn’t make sense. As such, we might need to move the paragraph on Hawaiian camels to later in the essay. (Another question that we might want to address: does the reader know why background is important? If not, that might be worth mentioning).

Paragraph 4, finally, shifts the reader’s attention to the particular threat of oil drilling. It seems to lead up to the central claim that the UN should intervene to protect the Arctic giraffe. But does the reader realize the importance of this point? Because the entire argument hinges on the link between drilling and shrinking giraffe populations, we might want to highlight the point. A new topic sentence to start off paragraph 4 could address this, for instance: “Clear evidence has emerged that humans may be harming giraffe populations.” This makes the problem obvious and allows the following paragraph to address it.

What else can I do with a reverse outline?

A reverse outline for a complete essay has other advantages. Perhaps you notice that one paragraph doesn’t make sense in the context of its neighboring paragraphs. This tells you that the paragraph can be eliminated, or needs to be rewritten. Or perhaps two paragraphs have the same function in your reverse outline. Then you could differentiate the two to make sure you aren’t repetitive.

Or you might realize that your thesis and introduction don’t capture the breadth and shape of the essay that follows. Now that you see this, you can revise your opening lines to fit the essay you’re actually writing. In cases like this, you can see the real value of reverse outlines. Not only can they clarify points within paragraphs, they can provide the insights you need to clarify the very core of your argument.

If you won’t do it for the sake of your paper, do it for the Arctic giraffes.

Daniel Gross ’13 is an English concentrator and a public radio enthusiast.

Structure: Four Warning Signs

by James Fuller

A good structure is often a clear sign of a good argument.  On the flip-side, a weak structure is often one of the most obvious signs of a weak argument.  If one or more of the following is true of your structure, you may want to reconsider the thesis, examples, or logical progression of your paper.

These aren’t hard and fast rules.  You may find that one of the following is true of your structure, but your discipline or some special feature of your argument makes it OK.  However, if your paper bears one of these signs, you have a good reason to take a long, critical look at it.

This semester, I took English 192 with Elaine Scarry.  Before setting us loose to write our final paper, Professor Scarry gave us two pieces of advice.  The first two warning signs are an expansion on that advice.  The second two warning signs I draw from my own experience as a writing tutor.


1. The structure of your paper exactly follows the structure of the text you are writing about.  For example, if you are writing about Moby-Dick, you might notice that each paragraph addresses a subsequent chapter.  This is a worrisome sign.  It may mean that you are allowing Moby-Dick’s narrative to determine the structure of your paper.

This may seem like a reasonable way to structure your paper, but your structure should be determined by the logical progression of your argument, not the order of the text you are writing on.  When you start a new paragraph, you should ask yourself, “What would develop develop my argument and prove my point?” not “What comes next in the plot?”

If you are worried that readers won’t be able to follow your argument if they don’t know the entire plot of Moby-Dick, then your argument may be too broad.  In most text based essays, you should focus on local, specific observations that can be situated with a small amount of narrative context.

2. You address multiple texts, and each text has its own discrete section of the essay.  For example, the first half of your paper addresses Mill’s On Liberty, and the second half of your paper addresses Hobbes’ Leviathan.

Again, this may seem like a reasonable structure.  However, in most essays that ask you to address multiple texts, you will want to bring these texts into dialog rather than treating each separately. Instead of having one section on one thinker and one on another, try organizing your paper around the points you want to make about both texts.

In the end of the day, you may find that your thesis is best served by giving each text its own section.  However, you must be certain that you have a single argument that brings the texts into relation with one another.  The “first A then B” structure should be a deliberate argumentative choice, not the default.

3. Your paper has unexplained transitions.  Common examples include “Before addressing W, I must address X,” “This leads me to Y,” and “I will now address Z.”  The problem with these transitions is that they proclaim a logical order without explaining it.  Why do you need to address X before W?  How does the previous paragraph lead you to Y?  Why are you addressing Z at this point in your essay?  The answers to these questions may be clear to you, but they may not be clear to your audience.

You should aim for substantive transitions that explain the relationship between what you have been discussing and what you are going to discuss.  Substantive transitions will help you make a cohesive argument because they will force you to reflect on why you are addressing certain points in a certain order.  If your essay has many unexplained transitions, you may need to reconsider the overall structure of your argument.

4. Your body paragraphs could occur in any order.  In other words, there is no good reason that you address one thing before another.  If this is true of your essay, you may be listing examples rather than making a sustained argument.

Even if your paper involves multiple examples of the same phenomenon, each example should bring out new aspects of the phenomenon or nuance your position.  If an example does neither of these things, you may want to delete it.