How to Outline Quickly before Writing

How to Outline Quickly before Writing

The following strategies can be used in regular classroom writing assignments, but they are geared particularly toward timed writing assessments. When you are asked to write a composition as part of an assessment, you may feel pressured to just dive right in and get it done. After all, the clock is ticking, and you don’t have all day for this test. But think of it another way: Spending some time outlining and organizing your thoughts before setting pencil to paper (or fingers to keyboard) can actually be worth the few minutes it might take.

Reasons to Outline before Writing

Outlining and other pre-writing strategies, like brainstorming, are often overlooked by students too stressed out by the pressures of a test to consider their benefit. But, consider these points:

  • Outlining helps you organize your thoughts before you start writing so that you are less likely to get to the end of your response and realize you left out an important point.

  • It also helps ensure a sense of organization and flow as opposed to “stream of consciousness babble” that may not make a lot of sense or work together effectively as a whole.

  • Outlining your ideas ahead of time can help ensure that you have specific, relevant examples to support each of your main points and can create a sense of beginning, middle, and end that will keep your writing more focused and on-topic.

Plus, there’s often a blank page in the test or answer booklet that is left blank intentionally to allow you space to outline or brainstorm before you begin writing. Why would you not take advantage of that opportunity?

But There’s No Time for Outlining During a Test

Your outline doesn’t need to be elaborate. In fact, it shouldn’t be a place where you spend a lot of time. Don’t worry about using complete sentences; just jot down words that make sense to you. It won’t be graded or assessed; it may not even be seen by anyone other than you. But a quick two minutes or less spent outlining will help your written response be clearer and more concise. And that part will be assessed. So, what kinds of outlines might you use? Below are some ideas.

Quick and Effective Outline Methods

Outlines come in all shapes and sizes. They can range from very limited to exceptionally detailed. If you are outlining during a timed test, you’ll probably want to stick with the more basic approaches.

  • Brainstorming your ideas in response to the prompt and then numbering them in the order you’d like them to appear is a form of outlining. On second glance, some of your initial ideas may not actually belong in the piece and you can cross them off as you number. For the ideas you’re keeping, you can jot relevant points beside each one.

  • A more traditional outline puts your main ideas and evidence or examples into order with a little more detail. This is the type that usually uses Roman numerals for the major points. List those first, leaving space under each one. Then fill in capital letters and numbers under them for more minor points.

  • Idea maps cluster your ideas by topic or theme and allow you to determine a logical order to present them to your reader. You can draw lines between the ideas to make connections and create a blueprint for your response. Here’s what an idea map might look like:


Remember, any outline you create will be a tool for you as you write. You can refer to it to keep yourself on track and to remember those great ideas you had about the topic. Some people like to list main points across the top of a page, then list minor relating points under each one. You may find a different format that works better for you. The key is it works for you.

How Outlining Can Improve Writing Quality

Overall, the brief amount of time you spend outlining your response before developing it into full sentences and paragraphs will enable a thoughtful and well-organized response. It is worth spending a few minutes to gather your thoughts and create a quick outline as your playbook for tackling the prompt.

It also helps ensure you are addressing all parts of the prompt before you develop the outline into a full text. Referring back to your outline as you write will help you stay on task and reduces the chances of your writing wandering away from the prompt, which is critical to success on an assessment test.

So use that blank space as it was intended and spend a few minutes creating a skeletal outline to help you remain focused during a writing assessment!

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