Skip to main content
Humanities Libertexts

10.3: Creating and Revising a Formal Outline

  • Page ID
    6533
  • [ "article:topic" ]

    Frequently, research essay assignments will also require you to include a formal outline, usually before the essay begins following the cover page.  Formal outlines are sort of  table of contents for your essay:  they give the reader a summary of the main points and sub-points of what they are about to read.  

    The standard format for an outline looks something like this:

    1. First Major Point
      1. First sub-point of the first major point
        1. First sub-point of the first sub-point
        2. Second sub-point of the first sub-point
      2. Second sub-point of the first major point
    2. Second Major point

    And so on.  Alternatively, you may also be able to use a decimal outline to note the different points.  For example:

    1. First Major point
      1. First sub-point of the first major point
        1.  First sub-point of the first sub-point
        2. Second sub-point of the first sub-point
      2. Second sub-point of the first major point
    2. Second Major point

    Sometimes, teachers ask student writers to include a “thesis statement” for their essay at the beginning of the outline.

    Generally speaking, if you have one “point,” be it a major point or a sub-point, or sub-point of a sub-point (perhaps a sub-sub-point!), you need to have at least a second similar point.  In other words, if you have a sub-point you are labeling “A.,” you should have one labeled “B.”  The best rule of thumb I can offer in terms of the grammar and syntax of your various points is to keep them short and consistent.

    Now, while the formal outline is generally the first thing in your research essay after the title page, writing one is usually the last step in the writing process.  Don’t start writing your research essay by writing a formal outline first because it might limit the changes you can make to your essay during the writing process.

    Of course, a formal outline is quite different from a working outline, one where you are more informally writing down ideas and “sketching” out plans for your research essay before or as you write.  There are no specific rules or methods for making a working outline-- it could be a simple list of points, it could include details and reminders for the writer, or anything in-between.

    Making a working outline is a good idea, particularly if your research essay will be a relatively long and complex one.  Just be sure to not confuse these two very different outlining tools.  

    If you’re having trouble starting to write your research essay, revisit some of the tips I suggest in the “Brainstorming for Ideas” section of Chapter Five, “The Working Thesis Exercise.”

    Exercise 10.2

    • Working alone or in small groups,  make a formal outline of an already completed essay. You can work with any of the sample essays in previous chapters in The Process of Research Writing or any other brief sample.  Don’t work with the sample research essay at the end of this chapter, though-- there is a sample formal outline included with it.
    • If you and your classmates made a formal outline of the same essay, compare your outlines.  Were there any significant differences in your approaches to making an outline?  What were they?
    • Was this article helpful?