How to Write an Outline
Whether you’re preparing your State of the Union speech, penning the Great American Novel, or composing an essay for English 101, an outline can help you organize your thoughts and plan your writing. Outlines may be unnecessary for very short essays but can be absolutely critical to keep larger works coherent and well ordered, so everybody should learn how to create an outline. Fortunately, it’s an easy, logical process, and once you make one, you’ll never need to learn again.
Do your research. How much research should you do before you start your outline? At the very least, you should have done enough to come up with a tentative thesis statement and to have a grasp of the broad main points that will be required to support your thesis. If you have just these, you can then fill in the rest of the outline as you do your research. Another way to approach research is to do it all before you begin your outline,
Determine your paper’s thesis and its audience and purpose. In an essay, speech, or nonfiction book, all parts of the outline should be constructed and organized to support your thesis or central point. Therefore, before you begin the outline you have to have a sense of what you will argue in the paper. In a work of fiction, you probably won’t have a main point (at least not before you begin writing), but you probably will have a good idea of what you expect to happen in your story. You should also consider the purpose of your paper and your intended audience so you’ll know what you need to include and what you can leave out.
Choose your outline’s structure. Each entry in an outline can either be a word or short phrase without punctuation (a topic outline) or a full sentence with punctuation (a sentence outline). There are advantages to both, but the important thing is that you choose one and stay consistent throughout the outline. Outlines can also be in either Roman number–letter–number form or they can be in decimal form. Again choose one, and be consistent.
Write down your main categories. In general, you write your thesis statement at the top of the outline and omit any introduction and conclusion (although in longer papers these may be long enough to warrant inclusion in the outline). The outline thus covers only the body of the work, the information that supports the thesis.
Decide on your main categories. The main categories are key points of your thesis, the main divisions of your paper. For example, in a basic wikiHow article, the main categories might be “Steps,” “Tips,” and “Warnings.” For a novel, each chapter might be a main category, or you might divide the story into its exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution.
Put your main categories in logical order. List the main categories in the order you want them in your paper. This may be chronological or thematical, but it should make sense.
Label each main category with a Roman numeral (i.e. “I.”, “II.”, “III.”, etc.) for a Roman numeral-letter-number outline
Label each main category with a number (i.e. “1.0”, “2.0”, “3.0,” etc.) for a decimal outline. Note there are periods after each label in a Roman numeral outline but not in a decimal outline.
Fill in the subcategories for each main category. Each main category of the paper may be composed of several paragraphs. Each subcategory typically correlates to one paragraph within your paper, but in a long paper or a novel each subcategory may include many paragraphs. For example, in this article, subcategories might be the bolded sentence for each step. Indent several spaces (typically 5), and write down only a short word or phrase (for a topic outline) or a brief sentence (for a sentence outline) to describe the main idea of each paragraph.
Label each subcategory as a letter (“A.” “B.”, “C.”, etc.) in a Roman number outline. Under main category “I.” you will have one set of letters, and then your will start again at “A.” for the first subcategory of each subsequent
Label each subcategory as a decimal in a decimal outline. Thus for main category “1.” the first subcategory would be “1.1”, and the next would be “1.2”. The first subcategory under main category 2 would be “2.1” and so on.
Fill in the tertiary categories or sentences. Within each sub-category, list and arrange your specific notes to support or expand the argument or point made on that paragraph. The tertiary (third-level) categories will often correlate to the order of sentences in each paragraph since each tertiary category should correlate to a distinct point or idea, such as these:
Indent each tertiary category several spaces from the beginning of each subcategory.
For Roman numeral outlines, label each tertiary category as a number. So you would have “1.”, “2.”, “3.”, etc.
For decimal outlines, label each tertiary category as a decimal with two decimal points. Thus, “1.1.1”, “1.1.2”, “1.2.1”, etc.
Continue adding smaller divisions as needed. While tertiary categories often correspond to individual sentences, many outlines will require smaller divisions. For example, you may have one supporting sentence (tertiary category) that is then followed by three sentences giving three specific examples of the point you made in the that sentence. These example sentences do not deserve their own tertiary categories because they don’t make a new point–they just support the supporting sentence. Thus you can break them down under that tertiary category as “a.”, “b.”, and “c.” or as “18.104.22.168,” “22.214.171.124,” and “126.96.36.199”. You can make even smaller divisions if necessary.
Write your paper. You should easily be able to write your paper with the completed outline in front of you. You may only need to add transitions and connecting words, since all of your points and evidence will already be in their correct places in the outline.
Sometimes the thesis and introduction will be the first and main category and the conclusion will be the last.
Topic outlines are more brief and quicker to write, but sentence outlines are generally easier to read and more comprehensive.
Word processing software makes writing outlines easier because you can add, delete, and rearrange entries at will. Many of these programs include outline format tools, as well.
If you can’t figure out what level (i.e. main, subcategory, or tertiary) a given point should be, ask yourself whether that point adds something completely new or different to the paper or whether it simply supports or explains a point or argument that is already there. If it supports or explains an existing category, it should be listed as a smaller division of that category.
Each category type should have at least two entries. Thus, you cannot have an “A.” without a “B.”, a “1.” without a “2.”, or a “1.1.1” without a “1.1.2”.
Different ideas require different numbers of divisions. For example, if one of your main categories is “Advantages” or something you may have six subcategories (A-F), but your second main category, “Disadvantages” may have only three subcategories (A-C).
Organize the outline according to your purposes: Are you attempting to show the chronology of some historical development, the cause-and-effect relationship between one phenomenon and another, the process by which something is accomplished, or the logic of some position? Are you defining or analyzing something? Comparing or contrasting one thing to another? Presenting an argument (one side or both)?
Some methods of organizing:
Climactic arrangement: one that works up to your strongest point, which is delivered as a kind of grand finale. The inductive argument: in which you build up the evidence first, and then draw conclusions. A problem-solution format: involves presenting the problem first and then outlining the solution.
Your paper depends on it! A good outline enhances the organization and coherence of your paper. The outline can help you organize your material, stay focused, be clear, discover connections between pieces of information that you weren’t aware of, make you aware of material that is not really relevant to the purposes of your paper, help you fill in gaps, etc. You can use Jane Schaffer method to help you write your essay paper as well.