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4.3: Outlining

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    Learning Objectives

    1. Identify the steps in constructing an outline.
    2. Construct a topic outline and a sentence outline.

    Your prewriting activities and readings have helped you gather information for your assignment. The more you sort through the pieces of information you found, the more you will begin to see the connections between them. Patterns and gaps may begin to stand out. But only when you start to organize your ideas will you be able to translate your raw insights into a form that will communicate meaning to your 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 you write, you need to organize your ideas in an order that makes sense. The writing you complete in all your courses exposes how analytically and critically your mind works. In some courses, the only direct contact you may have with your instructor is through the assignments you write for the course. You can make a good impression by spending time ordering your ideas.

    Order refers to your choice of what to present first, second, third, and so on in your writing. The order you pick closely relates to your 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 you may need to first describe a 3-D movie projector or a television studio to help readers visualize the setting and scene. You may want to group your support effectively to convince readers that your point of view on an issue is well reasoned and worthy of belief.

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

    Methods of Organizing Writing – What You Might See in Freshman Composition

    The three common methods of organizing writing are chronological order, spatial order, and order of importance. You need to keep these methods of organization in mind as you plan how to arrange the information you have gathered in an outline. An outline is a written plan that serves as a skeleton for the paragraphs you write. Later, when you draft paragraphs in the next stage of the writing process, you will add support to create “flesh” and “muscle” for your assignment.

    When you write, your 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. Your purpose for writing should always be in the back of your mind, because it will help you decide which pieces of information belong together and how you will order them. In other words, choose the order that will most effectively fit your purpose and support your main point.

    Table \(\PageIndex{1}\):"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, you may need to prepare a short, informal outline in which you jot down key ideas in the order you will present them. This kind of outline reminds you to stay focused in a stressful situation and to include all the good ideas that help you explain or prove your 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 you are on the right track and are working in an organized manner. A formal outline is a detailed guide that shows how all your supporting ideas relate to each other. It helps you distinguish between ideas that are of equal importance and ones that are of lesser importance. You build your paper based on the framework created by the outline.


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

    There are two types of formal outlines: the topic outline and the sentence outline. You format both types of formal outlines in the same way.

    • Place your thesis (not your introduction) at the top of the outline page.
    • Use roman numerals (I, 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, the sub-headings.
    • Use arabic numerals (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, etc.) if you need to subdivide any As, Bs, or Cs into smaller parts. This will be the examples and specifics of your paper.

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

    Thesis statement

    1. Main point 1 becomes the topic sentence of body paragraph 1

      A. Supporting detail → becomes a support sentence of body paragraph 1

      Subpoint 1

      Subpoint 2

      B. Supporting detail → becomes a support sentence of body paragraph 1

      Subpoint 1

      Subpoint 2

      C. Supporting detail → becomes a support sentence of body paragraph 1

      Subpoint 1

      Subpoint 2

    2. Main point 2 becomes the topic sentence of body paragraph 2

      A. Supporting detail → becomes a support sentence of body paragraph 2

      Subpoint 1

      Subpoint 2

      B. Supporting detail → becomes a support sentence of body paragraph 2

      Subpoint 1

      Subpoint 2

      C. Supporting detail → becomes a support sentence of body paragraph 2

    3. Main point 3 becomes the topic sentence of body paragraph 3

      A. Supporting detail → becomes a support sentence of body paragraph 3

      Subpoint 1

      Subpoint 2

      B. Supporting detail → becomes a support sentence of body paragraph 3

      Subpoint 1

      Subpoint 2

      C. Supporting detail → becomes a support sentence of body paragraph 3

      Subpoint 1

      Subpoint 2


    In an outline, any supporting detail 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 II. For every A, there must be a B. For every Arabic numeral 1, there must be a 2.

    Constructing Topic Outlines

    A topic outline is the same as a sentence outline except you 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.

    Checklist for 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?

    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.
    • The writer’s thesis statement is placed at the beginning of the outline, and the outline may end with suggestions for the concluding paragraph.

    This page titled 4.3: Outlining is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Barbara Hall & Elizabeth Wallace (GALILEO Open Learning Materials) .

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