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2.8: Outlining

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    Figure: Image from Pixabay

    Organizing Your Ideas

    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.

    Simply passing your eyes over an article or textbook chapter one time through is not sufficient to learn the material. Organizing information after you read it is the way to make sure you both understand it and remember it, whether for class discussion, for a test, or for an essay assignment. With practice, you will learn to organize what you read in ways that best suit your own learning style and the materials you are reading.

    How do I do this?

    Review your annotations and class notes and find some of the following information that you may need.

    • Vocabulary
    • Main ideas
    • Supporting details
    • Information that supports your inferences
    • Information you find interesting or important
    • Information you find confusing
    • Information you could use in your essay


    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.

    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

    The three common methods of organizing writing are chronological order, spatial order, and order of importance. Another common way to order your ideas is background/problem/solution. You need to keep these organizational structures 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 8.1 “Order versus Purpose” shows the connection between order and purpose.

    Table 8.1 Order versus Purpose

    Order P
    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
    Cause and effect or Problem and solution

    To explain the cause or correlation of a couple of things and the effect of that

    To explain a problem (an effect, and maybe its causes) and provide potential solutions

    Chronological Order

    Chronological arrangement has the following purposes:

    • To explain the history of an event or a topic
    • To tell a story or relate an experience
    • To explain how to do or to make something
    • To explain the steps in a process

    Chronological order is mostly used in expository writing, which is a form of writing that narrates, describes, informs, or explains a process. When using chronological order, arrange the events in the order that they actually happened, or will happen if you are giving instructions. This method requires you to use words such as first, second, then, after that, later, and finally. These transition words guide you and your reader through the paper as you expand your thesis.

    For example, if you are writing an essay about the history of the airline industry, you would begin with its conception and detail the essential timeline events up until present day. You would follow the chain of events using words such as first, then, next, and so on.

    Writing at Work

    At some point in your career you may have to file a complaint with your human resources department. Using chronological order is a useful tool in describing the events that led up to your filing the grievance. You would logically lay out the events in the order that they occurred using the key transition words. The more logical your complaint, the more likely you will be well received and helped.

    Exercise 1

    Choose an accomplishment you have achieved in your life. The important moment could be in sports, schooling, family, or extracurricular activities. On your own sheet of paper, list the steps you took to reach your goal. Try to be as specific as possible with the steps you took. Pay attention to using transition words to focus your writing.

    Keep in mind that chronological order is most appropriate for the following purposes:

    • Writing essays containing heavy research
    • Writing essays with the aim of listing, explaining, or narrating
    • Writing essays that analyze literary works such as poems, plays, or books


    When using chronological order, your introduction should indicate the information you will cover and in what order, and the introduction should also establish the relevance of the information. Your body paragraphs should then provide clear divisions or steps in chronology. You can divide your paragraphs by time (such as decades, wars, or other historical events) or by the same structure of the work you are examining (such as a line-by-line explication of a poem).

    Exercise 2

    On a separate sheet of paper, write a paragraph that describes a process you are familiar with and can do well. Assume that your reader is unfamiliar with the procedure. Remember to use the chronological key words, such as first, second, then, and finally.

    Spatial Order

    Spatial order is best used for the following purposes:

    • Helping readers visualize something as you want them to see it
    • Evoking a scene using the senses (sight, touch, taste, smell, and sound)
    • Writing a descriptive essay

    Spatial order means that you explain or describe objects as they are arranged around you in your space, for example in a bedroom. As the writer, you create a picture for your reader, and their perspective is the viewpoint from which you describe what is around you.

    The view must move in an orderly, logical progression, giving the reader clear directional signals to follow from place to place. The key to using this method is to choose a specific starting point and then guide the reader to follow your eye as it moves in an orderly trajectory from your starting point.

    Pay attention to the following student’s description of her bedroom and how she guides the reader through the viewing process, foot by foot.

    Attached to my bedroom wall is a small wooden rack dangling with red and turquoise necklaces that shimmer as you enter. Just to the right of the rack is my window, framed by billowy white curtains. The peace of such an image is a stark contrast to my desk, which sits to the right of the window, layered in textbooks, crumpled papers, coffee cups, and an overflowing ashtray. Turning my head to the right, I see a set of two bare windows that frame the trees outside the glass like a 3D painting. Below the windows is an oak chest from which blankets and scarves are protruding. Against the wall opposite the billowy curtains is an antique dresser, on top of which sits a jewelry box and a few picture frames. A tall mirror attached to the dresser takes up most of the wall, which is the color of lavender.

    This paragraph incorporates both an implied topic sentence and spatial order. Often in a descriptive essay, the two work together.

    The following are possible transition words to include when using spatial order:

    • Just to the left or just to the right
    • Behind
    • Between
    • On the left or on the right
    • Across from
    • A little further down
    • To the south, to the east, and so on
    • A few yards away
    • Turning left or turning right

    Exercise 3

    On a separate sheet of paper, write a paragraph using spatial order that describes your commute to work, school, or another location you visit often.


    Please share with a classmate and compare your answers

    Order of Importance

    The order of importance is best used for the following purposes:

    • Persuading and convincing
    • Ranking items by their importance, benefit, or significance
    • Illustrating a situation, problem, or solution

    Most essays move from the least to the most important point, and the paragraphs are arranged in an effort to build the essay’s strength. Sometimes, however, it is necessary to begin with your most important supporting point, such as in an essay that contains a thesis that is highly debatable. Depending on your audience, when writing a persuasive essay, it is best to begin with the most important point because it immediately captivates your readers and compels them to continue reading.

    For example, if you were supporting your thesis that homework is detrimental to the education of high school students, you would want to present your most convincing argument first, and then move on to the less important points for your case.

    Some key transitional words you should use with this method of organization are most importantly, almost as importantly, just as importantly, and finally.

    Writing at Work

    During your career, you may be required to work on a team that devises a strategy for a specific goal of your company, such as increasing profits. When planning your strategy you should organize your steps in order of importance. This demonstrates the ability to prioritize and plan. Using the order of importance technique also shows that you can create a resolution with logical steps for accomplishing a common goal.

    Exercise 4

    On a separate sheet of paper, write a paragraph that discusses a passion of yours. Your passion could be music, a particular sport, filmmaking, and so on. Your paragraph should be built upon the reasons why you feel so strongly. Briefly discuss your reasons in the order of least to greatest importance

    Cause and Effect

    Cause and effect is best used when you:

    • Want to explain why a problem occurs, or
    • Want to explain a phenomenon (i.e., why tornadoes happen).

    It always usually makes sense to discuss and explain the causes before writing about the effects because generally they are chronological in order. Sometimes, however, the logic may be conditional (i.e., under these conditions, this effect occurs). Therefore, when writing about cause and effect, many different logical joiners may be used to indicate the logic. Please see Joining Words

    Sometimes, however, the effect is what will motivate the reader, especially when that effect is a problem, and it's something you would like the reader to act upon. In this case, sometimes the effect is demonstrated through an example first -- in the introduction. This is a common way that writers of feature articles for newspapers and magazines begin their essays.

    Writing at Work

    A common need for writing at work is to propose alternative or better ways of doing things, whether that be a process or policy improvement (for efficiency or quality control, etc.) These are basically problem/solution "papers" that must show the cause and effect of the "problem" before providing potential solutions. Ordering your writing with the problem before the solution is always best to keep your reader engaged with yoru proposal.

    Exercise 5 

    On a separate piece of paper, think of a problem in society (yes, there are many from which to choose). This problem is the effect of something. Now think of some of the causes of that problem/effect. While one thing may not be a cause in and of itself, combined with other causes, they may together create an effect that is a problem. Careful though!  Just because one event occurs before another doesn't mean that the first event caused the second event. It could just be a concidence. Assuming this is called a fallacy of the consequent (see logical fallacies). But write downa list of things that may -- together or individually -- help cause the effect. Then think about how those causes relate to each other to create the effect. 

    Writing an Outline

    For an essay question on a test or a brief oral presentation in class, all you may need to prepare is 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.

    Drafting an Outline

    While there are distinct differences between developing and organizing support, and between developing/organizing support and drafting the essay, differentiating these steps can sometimes be difficult – in many cases, they blend into one another. As you develop support, you may find that you are also organizing that support into categories, thus creating a draft in outline form.

    If outlining seems logical to your way of thinking and approaching a writing project, know that there are several different kinds of outlines:

    • Roman or Arabic Numeral (highly structured, more formal). You can use this for full sentence outlines.
    • bullet point (less structured, more informal)
    • mind map (less structured, more informal)
    • other methods as appropriate, such as a timeline, PowerPoint slides, or whatever method works for the topic and your own way of thinking about the topic


    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. Format both types of formal outlines 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. Introduction: Thesis 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
    Figure: of outline from Amazon.


    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. See for yourself on the sample outlines above.

    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. (For more information on parallel structure, see Chapter 12 “Grammatical Parallelism".)

    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.


    1.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?

    Bullet Point/Topic Outline

    Figure: from Amazon.

    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 you use the tab key to arrange information just as you would in an outline. Although in business this style might be acceptable, in college your instructor might have different requirements. Teach yourself how to customize the levels of outline numbering in your word-processing program to fit your instructor’s preferences.

    Exercise 5

    Using the working thesis statement you wrote and the reading you did in Section 4.6 “Prewriting Strategies”, construct a topic outline for your essay. Be sure to observe correct outline form, including correct indentions and the use of Roman and Arabic numerals and capital letters.

    2. 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 you one step closer to a draft in the writing process. Here is the sentence outline that Mariah constructed for the essay she is developing.

    Thesis statement: E-mail and internet monitoring, as currently practiced, is an invasion of employees’ rights in the workplace.

      1. The situation: Over 80% of today’s companies monitor their employees.
        1. To prevent fraudulent activities, theft, and other workplace related violations.
        2. To more efficiently monitor employee productivity.
        3. To prevent any legal liabilities due to harassing or offensive communications.
      2. What are employees’ privacy rights when it comes to electronic monitoring and surveillance in the workplace?
        1. American employees have basically no legal protection from mean and snooping bosses.
          1. There are no federal or state laws protecting employees.
          2. Employees may assert privacy protection for their own personal effects.
        2. Most managers believe that there is no right to privacy in the workplace.
          1. Workplace communications should be about work; anything else is a misuse of company equipment and company time.
          2. Employers have a right to prevent misuse by monitoring employee communications.


    The information compiled under each Roman numeral will become a paragraph in your 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 you think that a paragraph might become too long or stringy, add an additional paragraph to your outline, renumbering the main points appropriately.

    3. Mind Map Outline

    Figure: from Amazon AWS.

    Wrapping Up

    Whichever type of outline you’ve started with, it can conveniently morph into an essay draft, simply by choosing a portion of the outline as a place to start writing. Start developing that portion with topic sentences, full sentences, complete thoughts, details, examples, facts, opinions, and all appropriate types of support. Remember that an outline identifies the ideas you intend to use in the essay; you develop the actual essay draft by adding support and explanation to those ideas.

    One of the many advantages to working from an outline is that you create an idea structure and can see visually how/whether those ideas relate, so you can see what needs to be added or edited. Because outlines capture ideas, they also allow you to begin your draft with whatever section or group of ideas you choose. Pick a section you feel strongly about, and start there. Move around your outline in whatever order you choose, in order to keep the momentum going to develop your essay draft.

    Writing at Work

    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.

    Exercise 6

    Expand the topic outline you prepared to make it a sentence outline. In this outline, be sure to include multiple supporting points for your main topic even if your topic outline does not currently contain them. Be sure to observe correct outline form, including correct indentions and the use of Roman and Arabic numerals and capital letters.

    The following video explains a little more about outlining.

    Video \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    Outlines. Authored By: University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill Writing Center. License: All Rights Reserved. License Terms: Standard YouTube License.


    Some people have to write a complete draft first. If you must do this, you should do a post-outline. The process of writing a post-outline involves going through your very rough draft and writing down the thesis (if there is one -- it may appear at the beginning of the conclusion), the main idea of each paragraph, and the major subpoints of each paragraph in a formal outline form. Then, make sure that each subpoint actually relates to the main idea of each paragraph and that each main idea/topic sentence relates to your thesis. You may find that you need to move some parts of paragraphs to different paragraph or delete some parts of paragraphs that are completely off-topic. Then, do the same thing with the major subpoints and the supporting information. Be sure that each quote or paraphrase supports the major subpoint. If it doesn't, find more appropriate support. This process can take a lot longer than writing an outline before you draft and really only works if you are writing a shorter paper. Do try to write an outline first before drafting longer papers.


    This page most recently updated on June 3, 2020.

    This page titled 2.8: Outlining is shared under a CC BY-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Athena Kashyap & Erika Dyquisto (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative) .