How to Write an Outline


An outline is a great way to organize ideas and information for a speech, an essay, a novel, or a study guide based on your class notes. At first, writing an outline might seem complicated, but learning how to do it will give you an essential organizational skill! Start by planning your outline and choosing a structure for it. Then, you can organize your ideas into an easy to understand outline.

Part 1
Planning Your Outline

Planning Your Outline on How to Write an Outline

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If you're preparing your outline just for your own use, choose what works best for you. If you're preparing your outline for an assignment, follow your instructor's directions. Some people process their ideas better when they write them down. Additionally, you can easily draw diagrams or examples, which might help you conceptualize the subject. However, it might take longer to write out your outline, and it won't be as neat. Typing your outline might be easier if your notes are already typed on the computer, as you can just copy and paste them into your outline. Copying and pasting also allows you to easily rearrange your sections, if necessary. Also, it will be easier to copy and paste information from your outline into your paper if you type your outline. On the other hand, it's harder to jot down notes in the margins or draw out organizational diagrams.

Planning Your Outline on How to Write an Outline

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Outlines help you organize your thoughts, ideas, or research regarding a topic. Without a main topic, your outline has no purpose. Your topic may be based on an assignment or could stem from a personal goal.[1] If you’re working on a creative project, such as a novel, identify your concept, genre, or premise. Then, allow the outlining process to help you structure your work. It’s okay if your topic is somewhat broad when you first start, but you should have a direction. For example, your history paper topic could be French life during the German occupation of France in World War II. As you write your outline, you might narrow this down to the resistance fighters called maquisards.

Planning Your Outline on How to Write an Outline

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Think about what you hope to accomplish with your outline. Will you complete an essay assignment? Write a novel? Give a speech? This allows you to determine what that essay, book, or speech will do for the reader. Typically, the purpose could be to inform the reader, entertain the reader or share the writer’s reflections with the reader.[2]

Planning Your Outline on How to Write an Outline

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In some cases, you’ll be writing an outline as a class or work assignment. However, many times you are preparing them for yourself, either to help you complete an assignment or to help you accomplish a goal. If the outline is for school or work, you need to follow the formatting instructions and present your ideas in a way that’s understandable to others.[3] For a school assignment, review the assignment sheet or talk to your instructor. If the outline is for work, use an existing outline as a model for yours. If you are the only person who will see the outline, you can choose formatting that works for you. For example, you might write your outline in shorthand.

Planning Your Outline on How to Write an Outline

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In many cases, you’ll be incorporating information you gathered through research, note taking, or personal experience. It’s important to review this information before you start your outline because you’ll be pulling your points and subpoints from it. You might incorporate some of the following:[4] Paraphrased ideas Quotes Statistics Historical facts

Planning Your Outline on How to Write an Outline

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Jot down your ideas, important bits of research, and any questions you might want answered. For a creative project, you might write down scene ideas or plot points. Write down everything you might include in your outline. You can always eliminate ideas later! Here are some ways to organize your thoughts:[5] Freewrite as ideas come to you. Create a mind map. Write your thoughts on index cards.

Planning Your Outline on How to Write an Outline

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In most cases, this will be the thesis you use to complete the final product, such as an essay.[6] However, it’s okay to use a general controlling idea or premise when outlining for a novel or study guide.[7] Your thesis will help guide your outline as you create sections and subsections organizing your information. For example, you may be writing a paper about policy change. Your thesis might read, “Policy makers should take an incremental approach when making policy changes to reduce conflict, allow adjustments, and foster compromise.” Each of the 3 reasons listed in your thesis will become its own main point in your outline.

Part 2
Structuring Your Outline

Structuring Your Outline on How to Write an Outline

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Although you might not recognize the name, most outlines follow the alphanumeric format. Each level of your outline will be organized using a letter or number. Here’s how an alphanumeric outline is organized, moving from main ideas to subpoints[8]: Roman Numerals - I, II, III, IV, V Capitalized Letters - A, B, C Arabic Numerals - 1, 2, 3 Lowercase Letters - a, b, c Arabic Numerals in Parentheses - (1), (2), (3)

Structuring Your Outline on How to Write an Outline

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A decimal outline looks very similar to an alphanumeric outline. However, a decimal outline only uses numbers, and each sublevel is set off with decimals. This allows you to illustrate that each sublevel is a part of a larger argument. Here’s how it might look:[9] 1.0 - Incremental policy change fosters compromise 1.1 - Both sides influence the policy 1.1.1 - Each side presents a case before the vote 1.1.2 - Citizens voice their opinion 1.2 - Neither side gets everything they want

Structuring Your Outline on How to Write an Outline

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Most outlines include short phrases, which are also called topic outlines. However, using full sentences can help you better understand your ideas. If you’re writing a paper based on your outline, then full sentences will give you a head start on your final paper.[10] You might use short phrases to quickly organize your ideas, to outline a speech, or to create an outline that’s just for you. You might use full sentences to make it easier to write a final paper, to make a good study guide, or to fulfill the requirements of an assignment.

Part 3
Organizing Your Ideas

Organizing Your Ideas on How to Write an Outline

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Review your brainstorming, placing related ideas in the same group. It’s okay if you have a lot of information at first. You can always eliminate ideas you realize are unnecessary. These groups will become main points, so narrow your groups down until you have your desired number of main points. For an essay or speech, that often means 3, but a creative piece may have more.[11] If you jotted down your ideas or made a mind map, use different colored highlighters to identify ideas that belong in the same group. Sort your index cards, if you used them to brainstorm. Put cards with related ideas together. For example, you can put them in stacks, or you can line your cards out in rows to make them easier to read.

Organizing Your Ideas on How to Write an Outline

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Broad ideas are more likely to be your main points, while details are the bits of information you will use to support those ideas. Depending on the purpose of your outline, you may have many subpoints and supporting details. However, aim to have at least 2-3 subpoints and 2-3 supporting details for each main idea.[12] For example, your main point might be that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein champions emotion over reason. Your subpoints might be that Victor Frankenstein is restored by nature and that his scientific efforts create a monster. As supporting details, you might include quotes from the book. If you're writing a story or presenting a historical argument, a chronological order makes sense. For an essay or speech, pick the subtopic with the most supporting materials, and lead with this argument. From there, order your major subtopics so each one naturally flows into the next. Your broad ideas should connect back to your thesis or controlling idea. If they don’t, rewrite your thesis to reflect the main ideas you’re putting into your outline.

Organizing Your Ideas on How to Write an Outline

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You can use either phrases or full sentences, depending on which you chose to use. Some people prefer to write out their introduction, which is also okay. Here are the points you need in your introduction:[13] Hook to grab the audience 1-2 general statements about your topic Thesis

Organizing Your Ideas on How to Write an Outline

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The outline headings are your main points. You’ll label these headings with Roman Numerals for an alphanumeric outline (I, II, III) or with Arabic Numerals for a decimal outline (1.0, 2.0, 3.0). If you’re writing an essay, this would be the body of your essay. These ideas should be drawn directly from your thesis or controlling idea.[14] For example, your outline heading for the main point presented above would look like this: Phrase outline: II. Frankenstein champions emotion over reason Full sentence outline: II. In Frankenstein, Mary Shelley champions the use of emotion over reason.

Organizing Your Ideas on How to Write an Outline

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Your subpoints are the second level of your outline, so you’ll label them as A, B, or C for an alphanumeric outline or to 1 decimal place for a decimal outline (1.1, 1.2). These are the ideas that further explain your main point. In an essay, they might be your reasons for making your argument. In a creative work, they might be parts of your plot point.[15] Depending on the purpose of your outline, you might have more subpoints. For example, a novel may have many subpoints. Similarly, a study guide will likely have several subpoints, as well.

Organizing Your Ideas on How to Write an Outline

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Supporting details back up or illustrate the point you’re making. They might include direct quotes, statistics, facts, or examples. This is the third level of your outline, so you’ll use Arabic Numerals for your alphanumeric outline (1, 2, 3). For a decimal outline, you’ll go to 2 decimal places (1.1.2).[16] In an essay, this is often where you “prove” your argument. For a creative work, you might include essential details you must include in that scene, such as an internal conflict in your main character. Similar to subpoints, you may have more supporting details, depending on your purpose. A novel or study guide will likely have more supporting details.

Organizing Your Ideas on How to Write an Outline

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Most basic outlines will include 3 layers, but you may need more. If this is the case, you can continue creating sublevels using the formatting structure you chose, either alphanumeric or decimal. For example, you might need more layers to provide more details. In the Frankenstein example above, you might include a 4th layer to write out your commentary about the quotes you used to support your point. Here’s how you would continue your layering:[17] Alphanumeric: Roman Numeral Capital Letter Arabic Numeral Lowercase Letter Arabic Numeral in Parentheses Decimal: 1.0 1.1 1.1.1 1.1.1.1

Organizing Your Ideas on How to Write an Outline

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Don’t expect to write out your final conclusion, as it will be much easier to write it once you’ve completed the essay or speech. However, it’s a good idea to start organizing your thoughts. Your subpoints might include the following:[18] Restate your thesis. 1-2 summarizing sentences. Write a concluding statement.

Part 4
Finalizing Your Outline

Finalizing Your Outline on How to Write an Outline

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Your outline should relate back to your thesis or main idea, address the purpose you set out to achieve and reflect your audience. If it doesn’t, you may need to revise your outline.[19] This also gives you a chance to look for missing parts or ideas that aren’t fully fleshed. If you see areas that leave questions unanswered, it’s best to fill in those gaps in information.

Finalizing Your Outline on How to Write an Outline

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In some cases, you may need to add more information, such as additional supporting details. The revision process allows you to do that. You might also want to rewrite sentences or phrases to make your ideas clearer.[20] If you are making an outline for yourself, you might not worry about this.

Finalizing Your Outline on How to Write an Outline

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Check for typos, grammatical errors, and formatting flaws. This will ensure you get full credit for your work. Keep in mind that it’s okay to have sentence fragments if you’re making a phrase outline.[21] It’s a good idea to have someone else check it for errors, as it’s often hard to recognize errors in your own work. While you edit your outline, refer back to your assignment sheet or rubric to make sure you've completely fulfilled the assignment. If not, go back and correct the areas that are lacking.

Finalizing Your Outline on How to Write an Outline

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If you need to add additional sub-layers, use lowercase Roman numerals (i, ii, iii, iv, etc.), then lowercase letters (a, b, c, d, etc.) and then finally switch to numbers again (1, 2, 3, 4, etc.). In most cases, three or four layers will be enough. Try to combine points first before you add a fifth.[22] You can use more layers if you want to include more information. You might also include additional layers for a long creative work or a detailed study guide.