Tag Archives: outline


Starting an Essay: From Prompt to Outline

            Recently, a friend of mine approached me at dinner and asked if he could ask me some questions about my writing process. He explained that he had a five-page essay due in three days and had yet to start—a predicament typical of a busy Princeton student. He asked how he could streamline his writing process to make the most use of what little time he had. I took this opportunity to explain to him my routine, which I have optimized over the last several years.

            My approach to writing every essay is the same. First, I begin by reading the prompt. Second, I create an “idea map”—a brainstorming visual—and research my subject simultaneously. Third, I transition from that idea map into a traditional essay outline. Fourth, I draft my essay, relying heavily on my outline before my fifth and final step of editing.

            This is not a novel workflow process; however, I believe that I differ from the norm in my emphasis and execution of step two—creating an idea map. Many people skip this step altogether, believing that it is an unnecessary prerequisite to a traditional outline or that it is ineffective and therefor unproductive. I would argue the contrary: an idea map can be a brilliant use of time if properly executed because it can not only help you immediately transition from reading the prompt to formulating an argument, but it can also help you tremendously in the research process by providing you with specific points and concepts to explore.

            In order to show this progression effectively and clearly, I will be referencing and dissecting and essay I wrote on the Civil War. Hopefully, this essay be a resource to other students struggling to write as quickly and efficiently as this university demands, or to those simply looking for new writing tactics.

            The prompt of my history essay was incredibly simple: What caused the Civil War? As is important for any essay, breaking down the prompt and identifying and comprehending each of its elements is vital. This prompt, however, only contained one requirement: identify (and argue) the cause of the Civil War. Recognizing that this prompt was so open ended, my intention with my idea map was to find an answer that was narrow, focused, and nuanced, in the hopes of differentiating my argument from the vast scholarly discourse regarding the Civil War.

Figure 1 My idea map for my essay on the cause of the American Civil War.

            As noted by the circled “1” in Figure 1, my initial answer to the question posed by the prompt was simply “slavery.” I immediately broke down the cause of slavery into subcategories, asking myself the questions, “Why did Slavery exist in the South? And why was it so important?” Still having yet to conduct any research, I answered my questions broadly using ideas from my class, referencing economic and social factors, as well as my own idea of “guilt.”

            From this stage, I drew arrows to new places on the page in which I could further break down those sub-causes. I began by looking at the economic reasons why slavery existed in early America and in the American South (Figure 1, Number 2). I divided this economic section in half, deciding to investigate both the economic benefits and detriments of slavery. Now that I had specific categories and a narrower focus, I skimmed my course readings for the implications of slavery on the Southern economy and extracted relevant points to formulate a list on my idea map. Once completed, I observed this list and looked for any irregularities or puzzles which could be the source of my motive. What I found odd recognized was that though the Southern economy was booming from the free labor slaves provided, their dependency on slavery also caused them to miss the industrial revolution that swept through the North. That is, the South was seemingly ignorant to the fact that the very institution upon which they relied was also causing them economic harm.

            Then, I expounded on the social consequences of slavery with the intention of exposing why Southerners let themselves be dependent upon something so detrimental and globally unpopular as slavery (Figure 1, Number 3). Like before, I turned to my sources to find pertinent points about how slavery affected southern social life. The result of this research was likewise interesting; slavery had created a social hierarchy dependent upon and segmented by race rather than economic class, education level, or any typical defining factor of a societal ladder.

            Now I turned to my final subcategory of “guilt”—an idea of which I had yet to derive any true meaning (Figure 1, Number 4). Before I could explore and research this section, I had to narrow down and define this idea. As displayed in Figure 1, these questions all took the form of “what if?” because I didn’t yet know if any of these questions and ideas had any merit among scholars. After these questions, however, I had a research area—the Southern attitude regarding slavery. I found within my sources a pattern of Southern justification for slavery, most often in the form of religion, i.e. that slavery was a god ordained process, giving white men the task of ruling an inferior race. The puzzle was virtually complete.

            Under the section at the top of the page written as “Conclusion,” I tied my findings from each category together (Figure 1). I concluded that economically, slavery created a vast divide between the north and the south in trades, crafts, and exports. Likewise, I added that this divide permeated from economics into social dynamics, as Southern life was dominated by a racial hierarchy less existent in the North. Finally, from my own idea of Southern guilt, I added that to abandon slavery in the South was to admit it as a mistake and a wrong-doing, and to do so would be to yield the moral high ground to the North—a rival ‘nation’ already thought of by Southerners as arrogant and overbearing.

Figure 2 My outline for my essay on the cause of the American Civil War, based upon my idea map in Figure 1.

            With my argument in a nascent—but existent—state, I was now ready to transition into step three of my writing process: the traditional outline. Creating an outline, however, is a very smooth and easy process if one takes the time to create an idea map. The task of creating an outline becomes finding the best way to structure ideas, rather than having to generate them. As seen in Figure 2, my outline resembles the research and logical progression of ideas that I already had in my idea map. I still had to decide what context was necessary to orient my reader and to present the ‘puzzle’ I had explored in my idea map as a strong motive. Finally, I presented my thesis that white fear and guilt was the final push that eliminated any notion of compromise and caused the South to go to war with the North.

            The purpose of this piece is not to highlight the argument of my history essay or laud my writing process. Rather, it is to show in detail how I go about breaking down a prompt and brainstorming in the form of an idea map before drafting a traditional outline. Hopefully, I have shown how you may use this approach successfully as well. Starting an essay is often the most daunting and lengthy part of writing an essay, but having a routine and formula can make this process easier, more efficient, and less daunting, even if—like my friend—you only have a couple days to get it done.

— Alex Charles ’22


Tortoise Tuesday: Structure in Creative Non-fiction…and Beyond

As a sophomore at Princeton I took a seminar called “Creative Non-fiction” with Pulitzer prize-winning professor John McPhee. His advice still resonates for me in my writing, whatever the genre. One point that particularly stands out in my memory is McPhee’s emphasis on structure. Structure was the subject of our first seminar, and for every piece that we wrote, we had to include some kind of structural outline—a tidy Roman numeral list, or perhaps a more abstract doodle.

I’ve been thinking a lot about structure in creative non-fiction lately. My thesis examines the legacy of the picaresque in the non-fiction of Mark Twain, who, at least by his own declaration, despised formal structure. There’s a persistent myth that he wrote as if in a dream-like state with no plan and scarcely any revision. Really, he was much less graceful and far more capricious in his writing and revising. At one point, he even wanted to toss the incomplete manuscript of his masterpiece, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, into the furnace because he couldn’t get the structure of the plot right.

My own research delves into the first work that won him national acclaim, Innocents Abroad, which details Twain’s real-life trip to Europe and the Middle East—in short, a work of creative non-fiction. I find myself in the situation of a detective as I attempt to retroactively piece together the structure of the whole. In one way, the structure is deceptively simple because it is strictly chronological. And yet, in another way, it is much more complex. Time compacts when Twain writes about places that hold scanty interest for him, and he often departs from the chronological structure to draw from memories or histories in the recent and distant past. To make the task of determining structure easier for myself, I’ve started to map out some of the most complicated chapters. As a sample, let me give one passage as an example. In Chapter 26, when Twain is in Rome, he expresses his exasperation at the oldness of it all:

What is it that confers the noblest delight? What is that which swells a man’s breast with pride above that which any other experience can bring to him? Discovery! To know that you are walking where none others have walked; that you are beholding what human eye has not seen before; that you are breathing a virgin atmosphere…What is there in Rome for me to see that others have not seen before me? What is there for me to touch that others have not touched? What is there for me to feel, to learn, to hear, to know, that shall thrill me before it pass to others? What can I discover? – Nothing. Nothing whatsoever. (169-170)

The chapter begins in this bitter tone but finds release in an elaborate game of make-believe. Twain imagines if he were a scientist or inventor or explorer discovering new things—if he were the first European to sail to the Americas, for instance, or even if he were a Roman in his own era traveling for the first time to America. Then, as if feeling guilty for developing these counterfactual digressions in such detail, he returns to his duty, duly reporting on St. Peter’s Basilica and the Coliseum (though he slips in many a snide remark along the way). He can’t seem to stay reigned in for long, because he soon lapses into another counterfactual, claiming that he has found a bill of advertisement and newspaper from ancient times in the Coliseum. The chapter as a whole, in only twelve pages, develops a multi-layered structure. We have the immediacy of Twain taking stock of what he encounters as a traveler in Rome, but we also have several counterfactual digressions, “quoted” at length: the imaginative accounts of 1) a Roman traveler to the U.S. in the present day 2) an ancient advertisement for the gladiator battles at the Roman coliseum, and 3) an issue of the Roman Daily Battle-Axe with an article on the opening season of the coliseum.

If I had to outline the structure of this chapter, what would it look like? To be sure, there is no single possibility. I’ve found that, much like outlining and reverse outlining in my own writing, the structure might take time to materialize, and often times the process is just as beneficial as the final product. In terms of this chapter of Twain’s, after a few tries, I arrived at this outline:

It’s a kind of narrative ecosystem. The soil of snarky questions fosters the development of deep counterfactual roots, which in turn supply the necessary materials for the more conventional travelogue observations in the present. Far from being unnecessary (though entertaining) digressions, as I initially supposed, those counterfactuals comprise the foundation beneath the present observations.

If you’re stuck wondering at the rationale behind an author’s argument, you might try reverse-engineering the structure. This tactic works beautifully for creative non-fiction or, really, any type of writing. Whatever the genre, structure undergirds it. The crucial thing to remember about structure, McPhee taught me, is that it shouldn’t be cutesy and clever just for show. The structure has to really work for the material. Indeed, the ideal structure arises directly from the material.

— Myrial Holbrook ’19


Quotations from Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain are drawn from the Wordsworth Classics edition published in 2010.