Today’s Writing Tutorial

In the previous column, we were helping Liz (a fictional young woman) compose an academic essay (and learn how to write). Liz is taking eleventh grade English honors, and she is writing a paper on George Orwell’s marvelous novel 1984. However, there is a slight problem. Liz is quite intelligent and a very good student, but she doesn’t truly understand how to write a research paper. Fortunately, we are here to help her.

Topic, Focus, Organization

When you teach the basics of writing, you must stress the necessity of topic, focus, and organization. These are extremely important elements in any academic writing—if any one of them is missing, the paper will be a failure. In brief, here they are:

  1. Topic: This is the most important part of writing a paper. The writer must understand clearly what he or she is writing about. You would be shocked to learn how often students don’t understand the topic of the paper. In many cases, they literally don’t know what they’re writing about.
  2. Focus: When students understand the topic, they must stick to that subject, and write about it, and nothing else. Slight digressions may be acceptable (if they shed light on the major topic), but students might need to edit them out later.
  3. Organization: The paper must be organized logically and sensibly. This is extremely difficult for fledgling writers; their thoughts and ideas are chaotic and disordered. To assist with this, I have developed a highly effective method to tame this disorganization; I call it the “Five-Part Outline.”

The Five-Part Outline
Fortunately, Liz brought with her the assignment description. Her English teacher wants the students to write a paper about “the literary elements George Orwell uses in 1984.” To help with this process, the teacher included this list of ten literary elements often used by writers: Plot; Setting; Diction; Mood; Characters; Foreshadowing; Dialogue; Imagery; Themes; Symbolism. At this point, you can tell Liz it’s time to make an outline, and you’ll help her with it. 

Using your pencil and paper, write numbers one through five on the left margin of the paper (and space the numbers four or five lines apart). Next, write the word “Introduction” next to number one, and write the word “Conclusion” next to number five. Next to number two, write “First Subtopic;” next to number three write “Second Subtopic;” and next to number four write “Third Subtopic.” And what are subtopics? They are smaller categorical offshoots of the main topic. 

Here are some examples of main topics follow by three subtopics:

  1. The Solar System: (1) the sun; (2) the planets; (3) the satellites
  2. The Rainforest: (1) the climate; (2) animals; (3) plants
  3. A Biography: (1) early life; (2) career and achievements; (3) later life and legacy

Using the list provided by the teacher, help Liz select three subtopics(three literary elements) for her paper. Ask her to look through the list and circle three literary elements she understands, that will also work well for 1984. (Expert tip: when choosing subtopics for any paper, always start by choosing three subtopics. That number can be altered later, if need be.) 

Now that Liz has chosen her three subtopics, her outline looks like this:

  1. Introduction
  2. First Subtopic: Themes
  3. Second Subtopic: Characters
  4. Third Subtopic: Plot
  5. Conclusion

Liz will undoubtedly smile as she looks at this simple outline because the project is starting to take shape and her apprehension is lessening. As the tutorial ends, give Liz the outline (she will depend on it), and ask her to make notes on the specific themes, characters, and plot elements she wants to discuss in her paper. Remind her to bring all notes to the next session, and set up a time and date to meet again.

Let’s Be Flexible
The Five-Part Outline is an extremely effective technique for writing an academic paper. However, please understand that it’s an organizational tool that can be altered or edited at any time. It’s a flexible document that will grow and change with the student’s thinking and learning. Also, it is not a formula for writing a “five-paragraph essay.” The model described here is a system to create an initial visible framework for an evolving academic text in which each subtopic will blossom into multiple paragraphs. And it works.

In our next session, we will discuss the “rule of three,” and we will add to Liz’s outline and create a map detailing her entire essay. And that’s enough for now. Thank you for spending this time with me, and I’ll see you in the next column. Until then, so long—and don’t forget to write


Dr. Timothy Horan is a full-time school librarian and part-time public librarian on Long Island (NY). He holds master’s degrees in English, library science, and education, along with an advanced graduate certificate in creative writing, and a doctorate in English literature. In 2013, The Suffolk School Library Media Association (SSLMA) awarded him the “School Librarian of the Year.” In 2019, they awarded him the “Outstanding Contribution to the School Library Profession.” He has published dozens of scholarly articles on libraries, writing, and education. He is the inventor of the School Library Writing Center, and literally wrote the book(s) on the subject: Create Your School Library Writing Center, Grades 7 - 12, and Create Your School Library Writing Center, Grades K - 6 (both from Libraries Unlimited). He is the editor of VOYA (Voice of Youth Advocates) Magazine and has a library in his house which he designed and built himself. This is where he does his best thinking and writing.