How to Outline and Organize an Essay

With Arrangeable Text Boxes

Any experienced writer will tell you that the organization of ideas on paper is a messy process. It takes time and effort to get your thoughts (and paragraphs) into a sensible order. That is perfectly normal! You should expect to deconstruct and rearrange your ideas as you craft an essay or long paper.

Many students find it easiest to work with visual cues in the form of pictures and other images to get organized. If you are very visual, you can use images in the form of "text boxes" to organize and outline an essay or big research paper.

The first step in this method of organizing your work is to pour your thoughts onto paper in several text boxes. Once you've done this, you can arrange and rearrange those text boxes until they form an organized pattern.

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Getting Started

Microsoft product screen shot(s) reprinted with permission from Microsoft Corporation

One of the most difficult steps in writing a paper is the very first step. We may have many great ideas for a certain assignment, but we can feel pretty lost when it comes to getting started with the writing—we don't always know where and how to write the beginning sentences. To avoid frustration, you can start out with a mind dump and just dump your random thoughts onto paper. For this exercise, you should dump your thoughts onto paper in small text boxes.

Imagine that your writing assignment is to explore symbolism in the childhood tale of Little Read Riding Hood. In the samples provided to the left (click to enlarge), you will see several text boxes that contain random thoughts concerning events and symbols in the story.

Notice that some of the statements represent big ideas, while others represent minor events in the story.

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Creating Text Boxes

Microsoft product screen shot(s) reprinted with permission from Microsoft Corporation

To create a text box in Microsoft Word, simply go to the menu bar and select Insert -> Text Box. Your cursor will turn into a cross-like shape that you can use to draw a box.

Create a few boxes and begin writing random thoughts inside each one. You can format and arrange the boxes later.

At first, you don't have to worry about which thoughts represent major topics and which represent subtopics. After you've dumped all your thoughts onto paper, you can start to arrange your boxes into an organized pattern. You will be able to move your boxes around on the paper by clicking and dragging.

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Arranging and Organizing

Microsoft product screen shot(s) reprinted with permission from Microsoft Corporation

Once you have exhausted your ideas by dumping them into boxes, you are ready to identify the major themes. Decide which of your boxes contain major ideas, then begin to line them up on the left side of your page.

Then begin to arrange the corresponding or supporting thoughts (subtopics) on the right side of the page by aligning them with the major topics.

You can also use color as an organization tool. Text boxes can be edited in any way, so you can add background colors, highlighted text, or colored frames. To edit your text box, just right-click and select edit from the menu.

Continue to add text boxes until your paper is completely outlined--and perhaps until your paper is completely written. You can select, copy, and paste text into a new document to transfer the words into paper paragraphs.

Text Box Organizing

Because text boxes give you so much freedom when it comes to arranging and rearranging, you can use this method for organizing and brainstorming any project, big or small.