Writer's WebCreating Outlines
by Kathleen Lietzau

(printable version here)

What is an Outline?

An outline is a way of formally arranging and developing ideas. Though structured, there is a great amount of flexibility in making an outline. It can be made either before there is a single word on the paper or after a draft or two. It can quickly cover the main ideas (Topic Outline) or become a detailed, in-depth undertaking (Sentence Outline).

The purpose of an outline is to help organize a paper by checking to see if and how ideas connect to each other, or whether some points need more support. No matter the length of the paper, outlines can help a writer see the overall picture. Besides the basic structure, there is no right or wrong way to make an outline. Writers should do what works best for the topic and themselves.

Crafting an Outline

1. Identify the topic. This is not simply copying and pasting the words from the prompt. A good topic should be what the writer wants to express about an idea, preferably in a single sentence or phrase. The more specific the topic, the easier it is to keep the paper focused.

2. Figure out the main points. What are the main ideas to convey or need to convince the audience? These points usually answer the questions "why or how is the main topic important and right?" Together with the topic, these points construct a thesis.

3. Arrange the main points in a logical order and list them in the outline. This order can always be changed later.

4. Create sub-points beneath each major idea. If there aren’t at least two “sub-points” for each main idea, that idea may not be that relevant to the topic. Outlines can help identify these.

5. Evaluate the outline. Look over the outline. Does it make logical sense? Is each point suitably fleshed out? Is there anything unnecessary?

Potential Outline Structures

The standard order of an outline is:

I. Roman numerals (I, II, III, IV, V, etc.)

A. Capital letters (A, B, C, etc.)

1. Arabic numerals (1, 2, 3, etc.)

a. Small letters (a, b, c, etc.)

i. Small Roman numerals (i, ii, iii, iv, v, etc.)

Note that Microsoft Word tends to use a different system of ordering, though this can be changed. Check to see if the professor requires a specific numbering system.

Topic Outlines

Topic outlines help a writer see a larger structure through a series of short ideas. This type of outline is particularly helpful when writing about a variety of ideas or issues that could be ordered in any number of ways.

An example of a topic outline is:

I. What is an outline?

A. Form

B. Purpose

II. Topic

A. Phrases

B. Example

1. Explanation

2. Analysis

III. Sentence

A. Details

B. Quotations

C. Example

1. Explanation

2. Analysis

Each part of the outline consists of just a few words and conveys the basic idea of what belongs there without going into too much detail. It is very easy to look over quickly and see the “big picture”, as well as all the main points the paper will discuss.The short phrases also make sentence outlines easy to rearrange. Clustering can be a great place to start a topic outline.

Sentence Outlines

In contrast to a topic outline, a sentence outline goes into the little details of the paper and can therefore be useful for more complex topics, or providing a more detailed structures.The advantage of this type of outline is seeing exactly what a paper will be about, rather than just relying on key words to spark ideas. Sentence outlines generally contain short phrases or sentences describing what each section will cover. In addition, this type of outline can also contain the quotations and/or subsequent analysis. This tactic can help by ensuring the papers has enough support for main ideas as well as reminding the writer to actually analyze and discuss quotations. Some people also find it easier to move from a micro outline to the paper since there is already so much detail and support, and they can simply continue to expand on the ideas with further analysis.

I. What is an Outline?

A. An outline formally arranges and develops ideas

B. The purpose of an outline is to help organize a paper, checking to see if and how ideas connect to each other

II. Topic Outlines

A. Topic outlines help create a larger picture through a series of short phrases

B. Example

1. Each part of the outline consists of just a few words and conveys the basic idea of the section

2. It is very easy to quickly look over and see the big picture, making sure all of the paper’s points are present.

III. Sentence Outlines

A. Sentence outlines go into the little details of the paper and are particularly useful when the topic is complex in nature

B. It can sometimes be useful to insert the quotations that may be used and subsequent analysis into a sentence outline

Moving from the Outline to the Paper

Once the outline is complete, the next step is writing the paper. A paper can be started at any point in the outline, although a writer should try to follow the flow of the outline as much as possible.

As the paper develops, it might diverge from the original outline. Don’t panic. It may be that the act of writing these ideas out has spawned new ideas that simply need to be added to the outline. On the other hand, moving away from the outline can also mean that the paper has lost it’s focus. A good method for checking for this a retro-outline, which is an outline created from the paper once it is written (partially or entirely). This method is quite useful before handing in any paper, regardless if there was an initial outline. If it is difficult to create a retro-outline that makes sense and is clearly organized, then the paper needs revision. The retro-outline can help by showing where the organization has broken down.

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Checked & proofread, summer 2018, Griffin Myers, Writing Consultant