5.D: Outlining

Prewriting activities and readings help students gather information for an assignment. The more students sort through the pieces of information found, the more they will begin to see the connections between them. Patterns and gaps may begin to stand out. But only when students start to organize their ideas will they be able to translate their raw insights into a form that will communicate meaning to their audience.

Longer papers require more reading and planning than shorter papers do. Most writers discover that the more they know about a topic, the more they can write about it with intelligence and interest.

Organizing Ideas

When writing, organize ideas in an order that makes sense. Order refers to what to present first, second, third, and so on in the essay. The order chosen closely relates to the purpose for writing that particular assignment. For example, when telling a story, it may be important to first describe the background for the action. Or a writer may need to first describe a 3-D movie projector or a television studio to help readers visualize the setting and scene; or a writer may want to group evidence effectively to convince readers that her point of view on an issue is well reasoned and worthy of belief.

In longer pieces of writing, a writer may organize different parts in different ways so that the purpose stands out clearly and all parts of the paper work together to consistently develop the main point.

Methods of Organizing Writing

The three common methods of organizing writing are chronological order, spatial order, and order of importance.  An outline is a written plan that serves as a skeleton for the paragraphs. Later, when drafting, writers will add support to create “flesh” and “muscle” for the assignment.

A writer’s goal is not only to complete an assignment but also to write for a specific purpose—perhaps to inform, to explain, to persuade, or for a combination of these purposes. This purpose for writing should always be in the back of the writer’s mind, because it will help her decide which pieces of information belong together and how the ideas will be ordered. In other words, choose the order that will most effectively fit the purpose and support the main point – the thesis.

“Order versus Purpose” shows the connection between order and purpose.

Order Purpose
Chronological Order To explain the history of an event or a topic
To tell a story or relate an experience
To explain how to do or make something
To explain the steps in a process
Spatial Order To help readers visualize something as you want them to see it
To create a main impression using the senses (sight, touch, taste, smell, and sound)
Order of Importance To persuade or convince
To rank items by their importance, benefit, or significance

Writing an Outline

For an essay question on a test or a brief oral presentation in class, all students may need to prepare is a short, informal outline in which they jot down key ideas in the order they will present them. This kind of outline reminds writers to stay focused in a stressful situation and to include all the good ideas that help to explain or prove the point.

For a longer assignment, like an essay or a research paper, many college instructors require students to submit a formal outline before writing a major paper as a way to be sure they are on the right track and are working in an organized manner. A formal outline is a detailed guide that shows how all supporting ideas relate to each other. It helps to distinguish between ideas that are of equal importance and ones that are of lesser importance. Writers build their paper based on the framework created by the outline.

Instructors may also require students to submit an outline with their final draft to check the direction of the assignment and the logic of the final draft. If students are required to submit an outline with the final draft of a paper, they need to remember to revise the outline to reflect any changes made while writing the paper.

There are two types of formal outlines: the topic outline and the sentence outline. Both types of formal outlines are formatted in the same way in the same way.

  • Place your introduction and thesis statement at the beginning, under roman numeral I.
  • Use roman numerals (II, III, IV, V, etc.) to identify main points that develop the thesis statement.
  • Use capital letters (A, B, C, D, etc.) to divide your main points into parts.
  • Use arabic numerals (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, etc.) if you need to subdivide any As, Bs, or Cs into smaller parts.
  • End with the final roman numeral expressing your idea for your conclusion.

Here is what the skeleton of a traditional formal outline looks like. The indention helps clarify how the ideas are related.

  1. IntroductionThesis statement
  2. Main point 1 → becomes the topic sentence of body paragraph 1
    1. Supporting detail → becomes a support sentence of body paragraph 1
      1. Subpoint
      2. Subpoint
    2. Supporting detail
      1. Subpoint
      2. Subpoint
    3. Supporting detail
      1. Subpoint
      2. Subpoint
  3. Main point 2 → becomes the topic sentence of body paragraph 2
    1. Supporting detail
    2. Supporting detail
    3. Supporting detail
  4. Main point 3 → becomes the topic sentence of body paragraph 3
    1. Supporting detail
    2. Supporting detail
    3. Supporting detail
  5. Conclusion

In an outline, any supporting detail (Arabic numerals) can be developed with subpoints. For simplicity, the model shows them only under the first main point.

Formal outlines are often quite rigid in their organization. As many instructors will specify, you cannot subdivide one point if it is only one part. For example, for every Roman numeral I, there must be a For every A, there must be a B. For every Arabic numeral 1, there must be a 2. See for yourself on the sample outlines that follow.

Constructing Topic Outlines

A topic outline is the same as a sentence outline except writers use words or phrases instead of complete sentences. Words and phrases keep the outline short and easier to comprehend. All the headings, however, must be written in parallel structure.

EXAMPLE: Here is the topic outline that Mariah constructed for the essay she is developing. Her purpose is to inform, and her audience is a general audience of her fellow college students. Notice how Mariah begins with her thesis statement. She then arranges her main points and supporting details in outline form using short phrases in parallel grammatical structure.

Outline of student paper showing Roman numeral formatting, followed by A, B, C categorization, for the topic of digital technology


Writing an Effective Topic Outline

This checklist can help you write an effective topic outline for your assignment. It will also help you discover where you may need to do additional reading or prewriting.

  • Do I have a controlling idea that guides the development of the entire piece of writing?
  • Do I have three or more main points that I want to make in this piece of writing? Does each main point connect to my controlling idea?
  • Is my outline in the best order—chronological order, spatial order, or order of importance—for me to present my main points? Will this order help me get my main point across?
  • Do I have supporting details that will help me inform, explain, or prove my main points?
  • Do I need to add more support? If so, where?
  • Do I need to make any adjustments in my working thesis statement before I consider it the final version?


Constructing Sentence Outlines

A sentence outline is the same as a topic outline except you use complete sentences instead of words or phrases. Complete sentences create clarity and can advance writers one step closer to a draft in the writing process.

EXAMPLE:  Here is the sentence outline that Mariah constructed for the essay she is developing.

The same outline as seen previously on the page, but this time with complete sentences rather than just phrases

The information compiled under each Roman numeral will become a paragraph in the final paper. In the previous example, the outline follows the standard five-paragraph essay arrangement, but longer essays will require more paragraphs and thus more roman numerals. If a paragraph might become too long or stringy, add an additional paragraph to the outline, renumbering the main points appropriately.

Writing at Work

Word processing programs generally have an automatic numbering feature that can be used to prepare outlines. This feature automatically sets indents and lets writers use the tab key to arrange information just as they would in an outline. Although in business this style might be acceptable, in college instructors might have different requirements, so be sure to refer to the instructor’s requirements.

PowerPoint presentations, used both in schools and in the workplace, are organized in a way very similar to formal outlines. PowerPoint presentations often contain information in the form of talking points that the presenter develops with more details and examples than are contained on the PowerPoint slide.

Key Takeaways

  • Writers must put their ideas in order so the assignment makes sense. The most common orders are chronological order, spatial order, and order of importance.
  • After gathering and evaluating the information you found for your essay, the next step is to write a working, or preliminary, thesis statement.
  • The working thesis statement expresses the main idea that you want to develop in the entire piece of writing. It can be modified as you continue the writing process.
  • Effective writers prepare a formal outline to organize their main ideas and supporting details in the order they will be presented.
  • A topic outline uses words and phrases to express the ideas.
  • A sentence outline uses complete sentences to express the ideas.
  • The writer’s thesis statement begins the outline, and the outline ends with suggestions for the concluding paragraph.