Writing Outlines

How to Write an Outline

Why Use an Outline? An outline is an ordered list of the main points of your essay. Outlining helps you define and organize your topic and subtopics so that you bring the reader on a logical journey from your thesis, through your supporting evidence, to your conclusion.  Many writers use outlines to better visualize their ideas and to have a way to share them with others in the planning stage of their writing process.

Before You Outline

  • Define the purpose of your essay.  Why did the teacher assign this paper?  What do you want to learn from this?  What do you want your reader to understand?
  • Define the audience for  your essay.  Knowing your audience allows you to focus your paper better.
  • Write your thesis statement. Once you have read the primary materials on your topic, write out a working thesis statement.  This will take several drafts until you get it just right.  To develop a working thesis statement ask yourself:
    • What gaps are there in the literature on this subject?
    • What is controversial or unresolved?
    • What changes in methods, analysis, or data have occurred that might shed light on a previously studied topic?
    • What applications are there to another topic that others may not have considered?
    • What social, economic, or other impact has previous research had in this area?
    • What unanswered questions do I have now that I have researched the topic?
    • Why should anyone care about the literature I am reading for this paper?

Once you have a consequential thesis statement, write it at the top of your outline-to-be.

Steps in Outlining

  • Brainstorm all of the ideas you want to include in your paper.
  • Group related ideas.
  • Sequence the ideas in a logical order.
  • Label your ideas with headings and subheadings.  The labels should be precise enough that they help you develop a topic sentence for each section of the outline.  An effective outline is not a list of topics, but rather a framework for a set of ideas.
  • Write a draft of your outline.

Backwards Outlining


Check up on yourself as you write a draft by making an outline of what you have already written. One way to do this is to write a list of the main topics or points of each paragraph.  If you have to write more than one idea or sentence to summarize a paragraph, split the paragraph.  If the new outline does not fit the framework you created in the original outline, adjust your draft OR adjust your original outline. Use the outline to keep you on track and rewrite it only if you get better ideas or a clearer focus as you write.  A skilled reader will be able to see the outline of your paper as she reads it. Can you?

Characteristics of Outlines

Crafting your outline with these four characteristics will help you write more clearly.

  • Parallelism:  That is, the headings should match in form.
  • Coordination:  The headings at one level should all have the same level of significance. 
  • Subordination:  The headings should be more general than the subheadings.
  • Division:  Each heading should be subdivided into at least two subheadings.


Level of Detail in an Outline


Outlines can be simple or detailed, depending on your needs.  A simpler outline might be appropriate if you just need an organization guide and are ready to write.  On the other hand, a more detailed outline can show you gaps in your logic or knowledge.  Probably, the most helpful outline details the main idea of each paragraph, without going overboard.  The trick is to capture the essence of the paper; too much detail as well as too little detail can limit the usefulness of your outline.

Sample Outline Structure

Thesis statement:

1.  Introduction

                  a. What is the controversy? Who? What? Why? When? Where?

                  b. What analytical tool(s) will be used to analyze it?

                  c. What claim(s) will be defended?

2.  Body

                  a. Evidence from science/methodology

                  b. Evidence from the theoretical literature

                  c. Evidence from parallel fields

                  d. Relevance to the analytical model

                  e. Problems or weakness in the evidence or model

3.  Conclusion

                  a. Review and synthesis of the evidence

        b. Appropriateness of the approach to the research question

                  c. Call for additional research in specific areas

                  d. Restatement of the thesis and its significance


Sample Outline

Thesis statement: The conduct and outcome of the O.J. Simpson murder trial reveals the status of race relations in the United States at the end of the 20th century.

1.  Introduction

                  a. What is the O.J. Simpson murder trial? When? Where? Why?

                  b. What analytical tool will I use to analyze it?

                  c. What claim will I defend?

2.  Body (usually consists of multiple paragraphs)

                  a. Evidence from trial transcripts

                  b. Evidence from media reports

                  c. Evidence from jurors

                  d. Relevance to the analytical model

                  e. Problems or weakness in the evidence or model

3. Conclusion

                  a. Review and synthesize evidence and conclusions

                  b. Was my approach to understanding the trial appropriate?

                  c. What else do we need to know in order to accept my thesis?

                  d. Why should we accept my thesis anyway?  Why is the trial significant?

Adapted in part from the Purdue OWL webpages on “Developing an Outline”

Tardiff, E., & Brizee, A. (2010). Four main components for effective outlines. Retrieved March 25, 2010, from Purdue Online Writing Lab: http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/544/1/

Tardiff, E., & Brizee, A. (2010). Why and how to create a useful outline. Retrieved March 25, 2010, from Purdue Online Writing Lab:  http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/544/02/.

Tardiff, E., & Brizee, A. (2010). Types of outlines and samples. Retrieved March 25, 2010, from Purdue Online Writing Lab:  http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/544/03/.

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