Writing Center

Thinking Outside the Formal Outline

by Liz Harris, Writing Center Tutor


We all remember first learning about-and instantly hating-formal outlines. For me, they always took so much effort to write, but never matched up with how I organized my final essay. More often than not, the basic argument wasn't even the same. This is because most people's brains, mine included, are not made to think in brief ideas in indents, under headings designated with Roman numerals.


Despite this fact, however, thought organization is an important part of writing. Without it, our papers become disorganized, unfocused, and vague as many of my written-a-few-hours-before-it's-due papers turn out. I have ideas in these papers-good ideas oftentimes-but none of them connect to each other, and so the paper is rambling and jumbled.


Luckily, I discovered that formal outlines are not the end-all-be-all of thought organization methods. There are actually numerous alternatives that can help a writer focus on how your ideas connect to one another to form a more cohesive vision or argument. Here are my four favorite alternatives to formal outlines:


Flow Charts (Mind Maps):

Flow charts are a classic organizational method, but most people don't think to use them for essays. They work amazingly for people who process information well visually.

  • What are they? You put topics, ideas, quotes, statements, etc., inside bubbles and link them together with arrows that show the relationship. These arrows can indicate numerous things such as cause and effect relationships, the order in which you would like to write about the ideas, the comparative scope of two ideas, and much more.

  • Why are they helpful? Rather than putting things under headings like with formal outlines, flow charts prompt you to think about how each idea connects because you have to group your ideas and draw arrows that indicate a relationship.

  • Especially-suited for: longer essays; essays with multi-clausal theses; causal essays; essays where points build off each other



Flashcards are one of the techniques many people were taught in middle school but never used again. I used to find them tedious, but I have a friend who uses this method for every paper she writes, and she has convinced me of their value. They work very well for people who find it helpful to physically work with materials.

  • What are they? You write quotes or ideas from those sources on notecards as you research. Then you lay them out move them around, grouping them and ordering them, attempting to figure out how everything connects.

  • Why are they helpful? As with flow charts, flashcards emphasize understanding the connections between ideas unlike with formal outlines.

  • Especially-suited for: research papers and essays where you have a lot of sources



This is one I came to on my own that I find to be very helpful for people who, like myself, understand things through internally thinking things through and freewriting. (It is also the method I used to organize my thoughts for this blog post!)

  • What is it? Essentially, you write down questions like "what do I want to tell my audience?" answer them, and then build on them with more questions such as "what do I mean when I say ____?"

  • Why is it helpful? Again, this method focuses on asking the writer to make connections between their thoughts. It forces you to think very specifically about what it is you want to convey as the connection between ideas.

  • Especially-suited for: papers where you can't seem to connect things at all to even start to form a coherent full vision for your essay


Talking Out Loud:

For those of you who have been to the Writing Center, you know that we genuinely believe in the power of speaking aloud in the writing process. Often this is through reading a draft aloud, but talking through your ideas before the drafting stage is also beneficial. This is especially true for people who process things best from social interaction.

  • What is it? This technique often means having a conversation with another person about your topic. You may want to ask them to take notes or just to have them talk back.

  • Why is it helpful? Talking out loud is like having a conversation-it takes off the pressure of the grade and the writing, allowing you to express things more naturally. Connections might become more apparent in ways a formal outline cannot capture.


These alternatives hit many different needs that formal outlines just can't hit when it comes to prompting writers to connect their ideas together into a coherent, organized plan. While formal outlines may feel tedious and unfruitful, these methods can help make the organizational part of the writing process much more advantageous. Not only are they good on their own, but you can also use them as a stepping stone to make a productive and workable formal outline if you are assigned.

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