Unit 4: Fundamentals of Academic Essay Writing

22 Creating a Rough Outline

Preview Questions:

  1. What is a rough outline? What information does a rough outline include?
  2. What is the purpose of writing a rough outline? How might it be helpful for you?

You have been reading and taking notes, developing a broad understanding of the topic. You should have some sense of how to answer your research question. As you read, identify the “answers” (evidence) to your research question. Create a rough outline to organize your ideas.

A rough outline (RO) is a tentative plan of what your essay will look like. It includes:

  1. Your research question (RQ).
  2. The focus of your research question.
  3. The answer to your RQ, expressed as a short list of categories.


Research Question: Why do people become addicted to social media?
Focs of RQ: Causes
Answers to RA: 1. Social validation

2. Fear of missing out

3. Brain chemistry

Technique for creating a rough outline: Brainstorming a list

  1. Review your notes and articles.
  2. Write your research question at the top of your paper.
  3. Brainstorm a list of words or phrases that answer your research question.
  4. Review your list and see which words seem to go together. Label groups of words with a different number for each “category” you notice. (In the example below there are four categories, so each answer has been labeled 1, 2, 3, or 4.)
  5. Put your rough outline away and look at it later with “fresh eyes.” Is there anything you would like to change or add?

Note: You will continue to refine this rough outline. It will help you write your thesis statement and your detailed outline, and it is likely to change as you explore your topic.

Example Rough Outline

1. Research question  

What makes a good university?

Focus type(s) – choose one or more.

cause effect comparison definition classification process argument prob & solution

2. Do an in-depth, focused reading of your sources. Look for evidence which answers your research question. Make a list of 10-15 phrases which answer the RQ.

·       libraries with print and digital collections 1

·       computer labs and tech support 3

·       small class sizes 2

·       luxury dorms 1

·       exercise facilities 1

·       lots of choices for classes 2

·       diverse student population 4

·       many different types of clubs and organizations 4

·       professors with good degrees 2

·       modern research lab facilities 1 and/or 2

·       ability to access course info on phones 3

·       top ranking business program 2

·       high quality ESL program 2

·       course management system (Canvas) 3

·       opportunities for internships 4

·       volunteering opportunities 4

·       good cafeterias 1

·       study abroad programs 2 and/or 4

3. Categorize: Analyze the list and group similar ideas together into categories. Put numbers next to each item designating its category. Then identify a word or phrase to describe each category. List the categories as 3-4 supporting points in a rough outline:

  • modern campus facilities
  • high quality instruction
  • technological support for student learning
  • opportunities for student growth and development

4. Write a tentative thesis statement. Limit your supporting points to the three most important.

An attractive university typically offers high quality instruction, technological support, and opportunities for student grown and development.



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Academic Writing I Copyright © by UW-Madison ESL Program; Heidi Evans; Andrea Poulos; and Becky Tarver Chase is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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