Creating OutlinesWriter's Web
by Kathleen Lietzau

(printable version here)

What is an Outline?

An outline is a way of formally arranging and developing your ideas. Though formal in form, there is a great amount of flexibility in how you might approach making an outline. It can be made either before you’ve written a single word on the topic or after a draft or two. It can quickly cover the main ideas or become a detailed, in-depth undertaking.

The purpose of an outline is to help you organize your paper by checking to see if and how your ideas connect to each other, or whether you need to flesh out a point or two. No matter the length of the paper, from a 3-page weekly assignment to a 50-page senior thesis, outlines can help you see the overall picture.

Besides the basic structure (Roman numerals followed by capital letters followed by Arabic numerals, etc), there is no right or wrong way to make an outline. You can do a combination of short phrases with long sentences, or stick with one or the other.

Macro Outlines

Macro outlines, also known as topic outlines, help you to see the larger picture through a series of short phrases. It is particularly helpful when you are writing about a variety of ideas or issues that could be ordered in any number of ways.

For example, an outline for this page may look like this:

I. What is it?

A. Form
B. Purpose

II. Macro

A. Phrases
B. Example

1. Explanation
2. Analysis

III. Micro

A. Details
B. Quotations
C. Example

1. Explanation
2. Analysis

IV. Crafting an outline

A. Identify Topic
B. Main Points
C. Order
D. Sub-points
E. Evaluate

V. Outline to Paper

A. Where to start
B. Changing outline
C. Retro-outline

As you can see, 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 quickly look over and see the big picture, making sure you’ve covered all the points that you want to discuss. In addition, you can easily rearrange any section simply by copying and pasting, without getting too bogged down.

Macro outlines tend to work well in conjunction with clustering, as the short phrases from a clustering exercise can translate quickly to a macro outline such as this.

Micro Outlines

Contrary to what its name might suggest, micro outlines can be even longer than macro outlines. A micro outline (also known as a sentence outline) goes into the little details of the paper, and is particularly useful when the topic you are discussing is rather complex in nature. For this reason, it is often more useful to create an outline using complete sentences, rather than the short phrases of the macro outline.

In addition, it can sometimes be useful to insert the quotations you may use and subsequent analysis into your micro outline. This can help to ensure you have enough support for your ideas, as well as a reminder to actually analyze and discuss quotations rather than simply insert them and move on.

I. What is an Outline?

A. An outline formally arranges and develops your ideas
B. The purpose of an outline is to help you organize your paper, checking to see if and how your ideas connect to each other, or whether you need to flesh out a point or two

II. Macro Outlines

A. Macro outlines, also known as topic outlines, help you to see the 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 what belongs there, without going into too much detail
2. It is very easy to quickly look over and see the big picture, making sure you’ve covered all the points that you want to discuss Mind maps

III. Micro Outlines

A. A micro outline (also known as a sentence outline) goes into the little details of the paper, and is particularly useful when the topic you are discussing is complex in nature
B. It can sometimes be useful to insert the quotations you may use and subsequent analysis into your micro outline
C. Example

1. A micro outline tends to be much longer than the macro outline.
2. By using complete sentences, you are able to see exactly what you are writing about instead of relying on key words to spark ideas

IV. Crafting an outline

A. Identify Topic: put it in your own words to show your individual understanding.
B. Main Points: What are the main ideas you want to convey or need to convince your audience?
C. Arrange your main points in a logical order and list them in the outline.
D. Create sub-points beneath each major idea
E. Evaluate your outline. Look over what you have written. Does it make logical sense? Is each point suitably fleshed out? Is there anything unnecessary?

V. Outline to Paper

A. One of the best things about an outline is that you can start at any point, and still know what you need to discuss before and after that section.
B. It may be that the act of writing these ideas out has spawned new ideas that simply need to be added to your outline.
C. Try a retro-outline, which means creating an outline from the paper rather than vice versa. This method is quite useful before handing in any paper, regardless of whether or not you made an initial outline.

As you can see from this example, a micro outline tends to be much longer than the macro outline. However, by using complete sentences, you are able to see exactly what you are writing about instead of relying on key words to spark ideas. Some people also find it easier to move from a micro outline to the paper, since there is so much already written, and they can simply continue to expand on the ideas with further analysis rather than trying to remember the reason why some point was included in the first place.

Crafting an Outline

1. Identify your topic. Do not simply copy and paste the words from the prompt; put the topic in your own words to show your individual understanding. Try to stick with a single sentence or phrase, as this will help make sure you stay on topic.

2. Figure out your main points. What are the main ideas you want to convey or need to convince your audience? These points usually answer the questions why or how is the main topic important and right? Together with your topic, these points should help you arrive at a working thesis.

3. Arrange your main points in a logical order and list them in the outline. This order can of course be changed later, as you evaluate your outline.

4. Create sub-points beneath each major idea. By convention, each time you have a new number or letter, there need to be at least two points (i.e. if you have an A, you need a B; if you have a 1, you need a 2; etc.). Though perhaps frustrating at first, it is indeed useful, because it forces you to think hard about each point; if you can’t create two points, then reconsider including the first in your paper, as it may be extraneous information that may detract from your argument.

5. Evaluate your outline. Look over what you have written. Does it make logical sense? Is each point suitably fleshed out? Is there anything unnecessary?

Note that 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)

You shouldn't have to go further than this. Also note that Microsoft Word tends to use a different system of ordering, though this can be changed. If you have to hand in an outline to your professor, it wouldn't hurt to check and see if they care about the numbering system. Otherwise, this outline is for your use, so use whatever works best for you!

Moving from the Outline to the Paper

Once you have a satisfactory outline, you are ready to start writing the paper. One of the best things about an outline is that you can start at any point, and still know what you need to discuss before and after that section. Try to follow the flow of the outline as much as possible, since that is its purpose.

As you write, however, you may find yourself diverging from your 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 your outline. Go ahead and add them, but make sure all the ideas still flow together well.

On the other hand, moving away from the outline can also mean that you have lost your focus. How can you tell if you need to revise the paper or the outline? One method is to try a retro-outline, which means creating an outline from the paper once it is written (partially or entirely). This method is quite useful before handing in any paper, regardless of whether or not you made an initial outline. If it is difficult to create a retro-outline that makes sense and is clearly organized, then your paper needs revision. Your new outline can help you by showing you where the organization has broken down.

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