Blueprinting: Planning Your Essay

Just as the blueprint of a building is the specific plan that will be used to guide construction efforts, the blueprint of an essay is a tool that an author uses in order to define structure. It's a lot easier to add a new door, move a room from one side of the house to the other, or replace a whole storey if you do it on the blueprint. When writers create a specific plan for their paper before they start churning out paragraphs, they save themselves time that they might otherwise have to spend frantically crossing out and rewriting just before the due date.

The blueprint, usually located within the thesis statement, is a brief list of the points you plan to make, compressed into just a few words each, in the same order in which they appear in the body of your paper. As you introduce each new point, remind the reader of your thesis -- but avoid lengthy repetitions (see "Reminders of Thesis").

Sample of a good thesis statement, with the blueprint highlighted:

Black Elk Speaks accurately represents Indian lifestyle through its attention to cultural detail, its use of Indian words, and its direct quotes from Black Elk.

A reader who encounters the above thesis statement will expect the rest of the essay to include one section on "attention to cultural detail," one section on "use of Indian words," and one section on "direct quotes from Black Elk."  If your essay actually does provide those sections, in that order, then your reader will be able to follow you easily.  If your paper begins with a rambling introduction, the reader will have a hard time picking out just what it is you plan to talk about.

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The Great Depression was an important time in our nation's history.  Unemployment, urban decay, and a sense of hopelessness filled almost every part of human life.  Yet, even in the midst of great misery, people needed to entertain themselves.  People tried many different ways to relieve their tensions, from religious revivals, to Jazz music, to membership in the Communist party.  But a whole lot of average people who were suffering in their daily lives often sought escapist entertainment in the form of movies.  One such movie was Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times. In Modern Times, "The Little Tramp" symbolizes the simple human values that are threatened by industrialism.

The author of the above passage not only wastes time composing six sentences before getting to her thesis (the very last sentence), she also clouds the issue by bringing up topics (religion, music, and Communism) that she has no intention of ever mentioning again.  
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In Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times, "The Little Tramp" symbolizes the simple human values that are threatened by industrialism -- leisure, self-reliance, and compassion.

The revised example is simply the [slightly edited] last sentence of the original wordy and vague paragraph.  This clear, direct thesis statement helps the student and reader focus on the task at hand.  The blueprint is very short -- just a list of three terms; but even that is enough to communicate how the author is going to try to support these claims.

Varieties of Blueprints

These are all acceptable ways to blueprint in a thesis statement. 

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Renting a new apartment during college is exciting because it promotes independence, rewards responsibility, and allows creativity.

This is one sentence, with commas separating each blueprint item. 
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Going to college is a good idea; it is intellectually stimulating, it creates responsibility, and it will provide security for the future   

This is one sentence with a semicolon to separate the thesis from the blueprint.

Taking Professor Jerz's Technical writing course is a wise choice.  It focuses on correct grammar.  It allows students to gain experience in the outside world.  And it permits students to budget their time.

This example is a bit choppy -- here, having a separate sentence for each point is pretty much a waste of words. (But see revision, below.) 
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Taking Professor Jerz's Technical writing course is a wise choice.  It focuses on one of Jerz's favorite things: correct grammar.  It amplifies textbook knowledge by providing students with valuable experiences outside the classroom.  And it forces students to learn time management -- a skill that many college students lack.

This example is a bit more complex -- the sentences which introduce the blueprint items are actually delivering some of the paper's argument; hence, there's a reason why each point needs a separate sentence

A slacker student who has nothing more to say about a point than, for instance, "time management is a skill that many college students lack" is not going to want to give away that one idea in the blueprint; instead, he or she will try to create an entire paragraph around that one idea.  The result will be wordy and boring. By contrast, a student who can slip an interesting observation into the blueprint, and then follow up with even more intelligent and insightful things in the body of the paper, is demonstrating much more advanced academic writing skill.

Use Parallel Structure

The order of the points in the blueprint should perfectly parallel the points in the essay. 

If you say you are going to talk about "ships, shoes, and sealing wax," but your essay starts with "sealing wax," then your blueprint is distorted.

Note: Prof. Jerz says, "I am amazed at how many students make this easily-correctible mistake."

The phrasing of the points in the blueprint should all follow the same pattern.

Here is an example of a distorted (or unparalleled) blueprint structure:

Taking Professor Jerz's Technical Writing course is a wise choice because it focuses on correct grammar and allowing students to gain experience in the outside world.  Students are also permitted to budget their time.

What is wrong with this example? How could it be fixed?  

Here are a few reasons the above example is inappropriate:

  • The number of ideas the writer wants to portray is unclear (does "correct grammar and allowing students..." count as one point or two?).
  • Nothing stands out as a main idea.  The sentence could easily confuse the reader, because the main focus is unclear.
  • Faulty parallelism is a grammatical error.  Flaws in the grammar of your thesis statement can be devastating to the overall effectiveness of the essay.

Note: A thesis statement amounts to nothing if the paper is not completely focused on that main point.  Proper blueprinting facilitates the coherency of the thesis throughout the rest of the essay.

05 Nov 2000; by Nicci Jordan, UWEC Junior
17 Jan 2001 -- updated and expanded by Prof. Jerz
21 May 2002 -- last modified