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11.4: Outlining

  • Page ID
    • Carol Burnell, Jaime Wood, Monique Babin, Susan Pesznecker, and Nicole Rosevear
    • Clackamas Community & Portland State University via OpenOregon
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    Once we have plenty of ideas for an essay, writing an outline can help us organize them. Outlining makes sense when we know a topic well or at least know the areas we want to explore. Outlines range from formal to informal. Not all writers use outlines; many writers work best from a list of ideas or from freewriting, but in some cases, outlines can save us a lot of rewriting later on.

    A rough sketch without color of an asymmetric jacket on a mannequin.
    Like a sketch of an item we want to make, a written outline shows the basic structure of an essay.
    Image by Michael Burrows on Pexels under the Pexels License.

    Traditional outlines

    A traditional outline uses a numbering and indentation scheme to help organize your thoughts. Generally, you begin with your main point, perhaps stated as a thesis (see “Finding the Thesis” in the “Drafting Section”), and place the subtopics, usually the main supports for your thesis/main point, and finally flesh out the details underneath each subtopic. Each subtopic is numbered and has the same level of indentation. Details under each subtopic are given a different style of number or letter and are indented further to the right. It’s expected that each subtopic will merit at least two details.

    How much should I write?

    Phrase outlines

    A phrase may be sufficient to describe each topic sentence or supporting detail. It is usually helpful to write a whole sentence to describe the thesis in order to specify not just the topic, but what you plan to say about it.

    Sentence outlines

    Writing a full sentence for each supporting idea and detail challenges us to clarify what we are going to say about each point and to think through how it relates to the other points and the thesis. Some instructors require a complete sentence for each item in a formal outline. 

    Sample traditional outline format

    1. Major idea or thesis
      1. Supporting idea
        1. Detail
        2. Detail
        3. Detail
      2. Supporting idea
        1. Detail
        2. Detail
        3. Detail

    Sample traditional outline

    1. Thesis: The Sturgis motorcycle rally has become central to the identity of Sturgis and the surrounding area.
      1. Bike Week has been going on for more than seventy years.
        1. It is an automatic assumption by locals that Bike Week will be held each year.
        2. Most locals have never known life without Bike Week.
      2. Bike Week is a key element of area finances.
        1. Millions of dollars flow into the area economy.
        2. Sturgis and the surrounding cities have invested heavily in the function.
        3. Although the actual Bike Week is a central focus, bikers come here for months on either side of the week to ride the famous routes.
      3. The area has grown and developed around Bike Week.
        1. Every small town has a Harley-Davidson store.
        2. Merchants continually create new products to sell to bikers.
        3. The locals are very accepting and supportive of the bikers.
      4. People around the world recognize Sturgis for Bike Week.
        1. People attend Bike Week from all fifty states and many other countries.
        2. Although Sturgis has only a few thousand people, the town is known around the world.

    Outline templates


    Most word-processing applications include automatic outlining capabilities. Search the Help section for instructions.

    Rough outlines

    A rough outline is less formal than a traditional outline. Working from a list, a brainstorm, or a freewrite, organize the ideas into the order that makes sense to you. You might try color-coding like items and then grouping the items with the same color together. Another method is to print your prewriting, then cut it up into smaller pieces, and finally put the pieces into piles of related items. Tape the like items together, then put the pieces together into a whole list/outline


    This page titled 11.4: Outlining is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Carol Burnell, Jaime Wood, Monique Babin, Susan Pesznecker, and Nicole Rosevear (OpenOregon) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.