Building an argument: outlining

time to complete: 15 minutes

So, you’ve analysed your essay title and wrote a thesis statement that addresses the question in the essay title. What’s next? The next step in the process of building your argument is to make an outline.

You probably know your word count, so you can work out approximately how many paragraphs you need to write. For each paragraph, you need to choose one aspect of your topic and focus on this. You also need to include supporting ideas that will develop the topic of each paragraph.

You also need to make sure every paragraph is directly relevant to your thesis statementIf it’s not directly relevant, perhaps you need to rethink your points or even the thesis statement. After all, an outline is a working document, so your thesis statement, ideas and organisation might change as you read more.

Let’s look at an example. The outline below is for the applied linguistics essay we saw earlier. Expand one paragraph at a time and notice the topic of the paragraph, what supporting ideas it will include and how it links to the thesis statement.


Background to conversational style:

  • Sounds, words, non-verbal responses (to show listening) 
  • Pausing
  • Hierarchy
  • Use of speakers’ titles (Mrs, Dr, Manager, etc)


Thesis statement:

Cultural background makes turn-taking challenging. In many East Asian cultures, pausing as a ‘thinking pause’ is common, turn taking is closely influenced by social hierarchy, and social status is reflected in language use. English language teachers need to not expect students to reply immediately in class and explicitly teach them what is normal in spoken interactions in English.

Main body

Topic: Backchannels  e.g. ‘mm hmm’, ‘wow!’, ‘oh no!’, etc. → show involvement 

Include in paragraph:

  • Miscommunication between non-native speakers from different cultures
  • Different backchannels in different cultures (Japanese, Spanish)


Link to thesis:

Teachers need to teach backchannels and students need to practise.

Topic: Pausing = varies across cultures

Include in paragraph:

  • Why do we pause?
  • Why is it difficult for non-native speakers? 


Link to thesis:

Teachers should expect gaps between turns and allow planning time for students.

Topic: Turn-taking = different in different cultures

Include in paragraph:

  • How do different cultures show it’s someone’s turn?
  • Hierarchy affects turn-taking (use Korean students as example)


Link to thesis:

Teachers need to raise students’ awareness of hierarchical culture and contrast to UK culture – class discussion, reading texts on cultural variation

Topic: Confucianism – power asymmetry in Korea reflected in language style 

Include in paragraph:

  • Verb endings to show respect, other differences?
  • Other East Asian countries?


Link to thesis:

Teachers should raise awareness of appropriate language in UK settings with speakers of different status (much less formal than other cultures)

Topic: Korean use of titles shows awareness of social positioning 

Include in paragraph:

  • Social positioning in Korea – age and seniority at work
  • Contrast to UK use of first names in workplace


Link to thesis:

Teachers need to make sure older students with high status don’t automatically lead in group discussions


Restate thesis statement


Suggest more training needed for teachers so speaking lessons are more than just having a chat – use corpora for examples of real language, discourse analysis to analyse real native-speaker conversations to raise awareness of turn-taking.

Outline adapted from Whitehead (2016)