Online Writing Resources for Students How to Outline Essays, Proofread Papers & Everything In-Between

Meet the Experts

Janet Heller, Ph.D. President, Michigan College English Association Read bio
Christopher J. Irving Faculty Instructor in English & Humanities, Beacon College Read bio
Christopher McCarrick Professor of English, Clarion University Read bio
Dr. Erec Smith Professor of Writing & Rhetoric, York College Read bio

Written by:

Kenya McCullom

College and high school students will write many academic essays throughout the course of their education, which helps to inform them about specific topics and sharpen the writing skills they need.
This guide provides information on the types of essays they may be required to write, how to conduct research and strategies for effective proofreading.

Essay Writing in High School and College

“Writing a college essay is an opportunity to grow. Academic papers give students a chance to stretch their minds, to develop original ideas, and to find out what other scholars have written about a topic,” says Janet Ruth Heller, Ph.D., President of the Michigan College English Association.

High school and college students may be required to write a variety of essays. The following provides an explanation of common types of essays, as well as resources where students can find more information.

In an argumentative essay, students are expected to choose a subject, create a strong argument related to that subject and address the counterarguments to their position. To find material for these types of essays, students may be required to read published research on the topic or conduct their own by doing experiments, surveys or interviews.

The structure of an argumentative essay can vary. In some cases, argumentative essays are five paragraphs that consist of an introduction, three body paragraphs that address arguments and counterarguments, and a conclusion.

In longer essays, students can delve deeper into the contextual issues related to the topic, as well as argue the points and counterpoints made throughout the essay.

In order to successfully write an argumentative essay, students must be sure their topic is actually debatable. Students should ask themselves whether or not others can argue against their position and come up with ways the opposition would respond.

Also, in order for a topic to be debatable, it must be backed up by scholarly research and not be based on personal morality or cultural or religious standards.

Resources

Plagiarism, whether accidental or intentional, can have serious consequences. Find out how to avoid it.Guide to Understanding & Preventing Plagiarism

How to do Academic Research

Academic research is the foundation that any essay is built on. Without a strong research foundation, the content of an essay may not accomplish what it needs to. This section provides information on how to find sources and evaluate their credibility.

Where to find sources

Archives

Archives are found at universities or historical societies. They can include materials that can’t be found anywhere else, such as photographs, personal letters and genealogical information.

Education Resources Information Center (ERIC)

This is a digital library of research provided by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences.

Google Scholar

The results returned from this search engine include academic journal articles and other scholarly resources.

Internet Public Library

This search engine returns credible sources, such as .org and .gov sites.

Library

A local or college library is a good place for students to start looking for credible sources. Although the computer system in the library allows students to search for books, periodicals and scholarly journals, older parts of the library’s collection may not appear in the catalog. It’s always a good idea to ask librarians for additional help finding sources.

RefSeek

RefSeek, which is made with students and researchers in mind, is a search engine that includes scholarly results like encyclopedias, books, web pages and academic journals.

How to evaluate a source for quality and accuracy

Conducting research is more than just collecting sources. In order to research properly, students must also evaluate the quality of the sources they find. The following tips from our experts can help.

“In my experience, students rely on ‘popular’ sources, which are the results of cursory Google searches. It’s odd, since library-based searches look increasingly like Google—that is, user friendly interfaces. I think, therefore, that student writers should be skeptical of sources they find outside of the school library’s connection to information,” said Christopher McCarrick, Professor of English at Clarion University.

“Students can certainly start with, say, Google or Wikipedia, but they should not end up there. In other words, let the library and the databases do the initial vetting. Develop a sense of how reliable sources ‘read.’”

Citing your sources and crafting your bibliography

After using the credible sources they have found, students are required to provide citations and a bibliography so their professors know where the information in their essays came from. The following are some style guides that may be used when creating citations and bibliographies.

Instructors will most likely include which style guide to use in the class syllabus. But if students are unsure which citation style is appropriate, they should ask before completing their bibliography.

AP

The Associated Press style guide is designed for journalistic writing and is used by magazines, newspapers and public relations companies.

APA

The American Psychological Association’s style guide is commonly used in social and behavioral sciences such as social work, psychology, anthropology and education.

MLA

Published by the Modern Language Association, this style guide is most often used in the humanities.

Chicago Manual of Style

This style guide, created by the University of Chicago, is used for historical research, as well as some areas of the humanities.

Bibliography & Citation Generators

There are a variety of bibliography and citation generators online that can make crafting a bibliography simple. However, students should always double check the citations and bibliography for accuracy before turning in their papers.

  • EasyBib

    Allows users to generate citations for a variety of sources—from books to journal articles to newsletters—in Chicago, APA and MLA styles.

  • BibMe

    This tool creates citations for MLA, Chicago and APA styles and also has a grammar checker.

  • OttoBib.com

    Students can create a bibliography in MLA, APA and Chicago styles by entering the ISBNs of the books they used for their essay.

  • Citation Machine

    Makes citations for APA, Chicago and MLA styles, and allows students to check for grammar and plagiarism.

  • Citefast

    Creates APA, MLA and Chicago citations for journals, books, blogs, newspapers and encyclopedias.

  • Citation Builder

    This citation builder allows students to cite entire books or book chapters, as well as journals, and newspaper or magazine articles, in APA, MLA, or Chicago styles.

  • KnightCite Citation Service

    Created by Calvin College, this site provides MLA, APA and Chicago citations.

How to Write a Killer Outline

Once sources have been found and evaluated, students can create an outline to help them organize the information they found and lay out the contents of their essay in a logical way.

“Outlines ensure that all necessary points are completed. Outlines also discourage digression,” says Smith. “That being said, outlines should not be written in stone. If new ideas are discovered or new information is found during the writing process, the student should feel free to veer from a pre-established outline to improve the essay.”

Although outlining can be a great way to keep an essay on track, McCarrick also advises students to keep in mind that it’s not the only way.

“In my teaching, I talk about and model outlines as one way to give a paper structure—structure and organization are the key points here—but I also show writers other methods such as, for example, drawing papers as maps and then finding the most direct route from beginning to end,” McCarrick says. “Outlines and maps are not woven into the fabric of the universe; they’re tools that serve writers, not prescriptions that tell writers what to do.”

Types of outlines

  • Alphanumeric

    This type of outline is the most common and is formatted in the following order: Roman numerals, capitalized letters, Arabic numerals and lowercase letters.

    See an example
  • Decimal

    A decimal outline helps to show how each level relates to the entire outline. For example, the first section of a decimal outline may be formatted as 1.0, 1.1, 1.1.1, 1.2, 1.2.1, and so on.

    See an example
  • Macro

    Also known as topic outlines, macro outlines are made up of general phrases about a topic without going into detail. Since this outline illustrates a big picture look at the topic, students can use this to ensure they’ve covered all the points they wish to discuss in the essay.

    See an example
  • Micro

    A micro outline, also called a sentence outline, is generally used for topics that are complicated in nature. When using this outline, students use full sentences to organize the details they want to use in each section of the essay.

    See an example

What to include in an outline

  • Thesis statement
  • First main topic sentence or phrase
    • First supporting sentence or phrase
    • Second supporting sentence or phrase
    • Third supporting sentence or phrase
  • Second main topic sentence or phrase
    • First supporting sentence or phrase
    • Second supporting sentence or phrase
    • Third supporting sentence or phrase
  • Third main topic sentence or phrase
    • First supporting sentence or phrase
    • Second supporting sentence or phrase
    • Third supporting sentence or phrase
  • Conclusion

Resources

Common Writing Mistakes & How to Avoid Them

As college and high school students navigate the essay writing process, they may make some common mistakes. The following are some that our experts warn students to avoid.

In some cases, students forget that the reader may not be well-versed in the essay’s subject matter, which can cause them to leave out key information on the topic.

How to avoid it

“Student writers face a tough situation: they’re new to college and to ‘professors,’ rather than teachers. Don’t professors know everything about a subject? I ask classes to explain their information to an actual person who they know—a parent, grandparent, sibling. We talk in class about appropriate content and word choices for such ‘known’ readers and work our way to composing for more abstract readers,” says McCarrick.

“I also tell student writers that they can always ask what readers need to know, usually by having a professor read a draft.”

Proofreading 101

The research has been done, the essay has been written and the bibliography has been created. Some students may believe their job is done. But before handing in any essay, it’s imperative for students to proofread their work.

“It’s absolutely crucial that students keep in mind that the paper they are producing is their paper. It has their name on it, it contains a collection of their ideas and it is a quantifiable example of their reflections and examinations of their coursework. A student’s paper is, in many ways, a kind of DNA signature to the student’s thought process,” says Irving.

“No student should ever produce a paper that he or she does not give at least one focused read. Reading a paper can identity a surp1rising number of errors—perhaps like the one you might have just missed.”

In order to ensure that they’re not missing any errors, students should use the following proofreading tips.

  • Complete writing the essay at least one day before proofreading. Fresh eyes can make it easier to find errors.
  • Use professors’ previous feedback to create a list of what to look for when proofreading. Check for each item on the list separately.
  • Change the font and size of the text to trick the brain into thinking it is a new document.
  • Print out the essay.
  • Read the essay out loud.
  • Use a ruler or blank piece of paper to focus on one line of the essay at a time.
  • Read the essay from the end to the beginning one sentence at a time. This makes it easier to pay attention to each individual sentence.