Outlines can be a helpful tool when you're trying to organize your thoughts for an essay or research paper. After you've decided on a topic and done some brainstorming to generate ideas, think about the best way to group your ideas together.
Ask yourself: What is my main point or purpose in writing this paper? The answer will help you form a thesis statement.
Ask yourself: Can I list at least 3 larger concepts that will support my main idea? These larger topics will make up the body paragraph sections of your outline.
Ask yourself: How can I organize the rest of my ideas so that they fit within these larger categories? These ideas will make up the sub-topics of your outline.
Ask yourself: What else do I want or need to say about this topic to fulfill my assignment? These additions should be placed on your outline, as well.
A Note About Formatting: Outlines usually follow a specific format using parallelism, Roman Numerals, upper case letters, and sometimes numbers to indicate ideas with different levels of importance. Unless your instructor is planning to collect and grade your outline based on proper formatting, try not to get too hung up on making sure that you're formatting each section properly. The important thing to remember is that the outline is meant to be a helpful organizational tool--compose your outline in such a way that it will be helpful to you!
Example of a Formal Outline
- Introduction/Tentative Thesis
- Main Topic 1
- Support 1
- Evidence 1
- Example 1
- Support 1
- Main Topic 2
- Support 2
- Evidence 2
- Main Topic 3
- Evidence 3
- Example 1
- Support 1
- Topic 1
- Topic 2
- Topic 3
A simpler, more informal type of outline can be helpful after you've written your rough draft. If you find that your essays are often disorganized or you tend to struggle with transitions, reverse outlines might be a useful tool for you.
What is a reverse outline? Reverse outlines are informal lists that are created after a rough draft has been written, to help you visually see what you're discussing in your essay
How do I create one? You can make a formal outline if you want, but often the best type of reverse outline simply involves jotting down notes in the margins of your draft. Follow these steps:
- Read your introduction paragraph. Underline your thesis statement.
- Read each body paragraph slowly. Each time you finish a paragraph, jot down the main idea that the paragraph discussed, in the margins.
- Read each body paragraph again and jot down notes about the supporting information that was discussed in each paragraph, in the margins.
- Read your conclusion paragraph. Check to make sure that it refers back to your thesis statement, but uses different words to do so.
In order to use this reverse outline as a revision tool, you'll need to take a look at the main ideas that have been presented. Ask yourself the following questions:
- Do each of these body paragraph topics support my thesis statement? (Consider removing anything that wanders away from your topic)
- Have I discussed the same idea or topic in multiple places throughout the draft? (Group similar ideas together!)
- Have I used clear transitions to show how each paragraph relates to the surrounding paragraphs? (If not, add connecting words or transitional phrases)
- Have I covered everything that I wanted to say about my topic? (Look for holes in your information, then add paragraphs or sentences to fill them)
- Have I tried to cover too much information or rambled on about a particular idea for a long time? (Narrow your topic and/or remove unnecessary words)
Types of Outlines and Samples
This is the most common type of outline and usually instantly recognizable to most people. The formatting follows these characters, in this order:
- Roman Numerals
- Capitalized Letters
- Arabic Numerals
- Lowercase Letters
If the outline needs to subdivide beyond these divisions, use Arabic numerals inside parentheses and then lowercase letters inside parentheses. Select the "Sample Outlines" PDF in the Media Box above to download the sample of this outline.
The sample PDF in the Media Box above is an example of an outline that a student might create before writing an essay. In order to organize her thoughts and make sure that she has not forgotten any key points that she wants to address, she creates the outline as a framework for her essay.
What is the assignment?
Your instructor asks the class to write an expository (explanatory) essay on the typical steps a high school student would follow in order to apply to college.
What is the purpose of this essay?
To explain the process for applying to college
Who is the intended audience for this essay?
High school students intending to apply to college and their parents
What is the essay's thesis statement?
When applying to college, a student follows a certain process which includes choosing the right schools and preparing the application materials.
Full Sentence Outlines
The full sentence outline format is essentially the same as the Alphanumeric outline. The main difference (as the title suggests) is that full sentences are required at each level of the outline. This outline is most often used when preparing a traditional essay. Select the "Sample Outlines" PDF in the Media Box above to download the sample of this outline.
The decimal outline is similar in format to the alphanumeric outline. The added benefit is a system of decimal notation that clearly shows how every level of the outline relates to the larger whole. Select the "Sample Outlines" PDF in the Media Box above to download the sample of this outline.