How to Write an Outline in 5 Steps
An outline is an organizational tool you use to keep track of all the topics and points you plan to include in a piece of writing. Knowing how to make an outline is a great advantage when you’re doing any kind of writing, from research papers to creative writing.
Still, many students and writers don’t know how to do an outline or understand the proper outline format. So below, we explain how to write an outline, with a step-by-step guide and a formal outline example. But first, let’s start with a simple question: What does it mean to “make an outline”?
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What is an outline in writing?
An outline is like a blueprint for writing . Simple outlines list the topics you plan to cover and the order they will go in. Outlines are usually broken up by paragraphs along with their supporting details like statistical data or logical evidence. When it’s time to write the first draft, the writer simply follows the outline so they know what to write about and in what order.
Why create an outline?
Topic outlines let you focus exclusively on the structure and fitting everything in the right place. That way, when you’re writing the first draft, you can focus on details like sentence structure and clarity without getting distracted by the big picture.
Knowing how to write an outline for a paper is particularly important if you want to keep track of your prior research. When outlining, you can decide the best way to put your findings into sections and paragraphs. The outline not only organizes your research but also ensures you don’t forget anything when writing the first draft.
Outline structure: What is the outline format?
Easy outlines are structured by paragraph : You list the topic of each paragraph along with a few bullet points about what goes into that paragraph. This allows you to easily rearrange the order of the paragraphs to find the perfect arrangement before you begin writing.
The standard outline format uses an alphanumeric system, which alternates letters and numerals at the start of each section.
- Main topics like sections or chapters are listed as Roman numerals.
- Paragraphs are usually listed as capital letters.
- Points and subtopics within a paragraph are listed as Arabic numerals.
- Specific details are listed as lower-case letters.
The content of the outline is generally written in blurbs—you don’t need to use complete sentences, although if you’re working as a team, using full sentences can help other people understand your ideas better and vice versa.
Standard outline format has a distinct indentation. Roman numeral lines are not indented, capital letter lines are indented once, Arabic numeral lines are indented twice, and lower-case letter lines are indented three times.
So you can see what an outline should look like, here’s an example of a writing outline for this section of this article.
III. Outline structure
A. Overview about outline structure
1. explain basic structure of outline
2. reiterate how outlines help with paragraph order
B. Alphanumeric system
1. introduce the alphanumeric system
a. bullet list of each line in alphanumeric system
C. Content written in blurbs
1. exceptions for sharing with teams
D. Outline indentation
E. Outline example
1. example outline of this section
As you can see, you use only the lines you need—not every paragraph needs markers for subtopics, and not every subtopic needs specific details.
It’s also worth noting that there is no official structure for outlining. For example, if you’re using longer paragraphs, you might want to use Roman numerals as the paragraph marker. The above example is simply the most common and easiest format to follow, but you’re free to structure your outline however seems most reasonable to you.
Outline format example: What does an outline look like?
Knowing how to create an outline for an essay or another piece of writing is impossible if you don’t know what an outline looks like.
We’ve already written articles about essay outlines and argumentative essay outlines in particular, but that doesn’t cover everything. So below we’ve included an outline example of a five-paragraph essay comparing the pros and cons of social media.
I. Does the harm of social media outweigh the benefits?
1. briefly mention background of social media
a. specific examples like Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube
2. explain how social media is a major part of modern people’s lives
3. end with a teaser about whether or not social media is actually good
B. The advantages of social media
1. increased socialization
a. “Many respondents in this study used their social networks to make friends, chat with them, conduct research, and share news or information.” ( Awareness and Usage of Social Media study)
2. raise awareness of social issues
a. list causes that benefited from social media ( Maryville article )
3. entertainment value
C. The disadvantages of social media
1. negative effect on self-esteem
a. Facebook knowingly harming teenage girls ( Guardian article )
2. echo chamber effect
a.“Social media may limit the exposure to diverse perspectives and favor the formation of groups of like-minded users framing and reinforcing a shared narrative, that is, echo chambers.” ( The echo chamber effect on social media study)
D. It’s how you use it
1. research shows both good and bad effects
a. “. . . some research finds that SNS use and self-esteem are negatively associated, while some find that they are positively associated.” ( Social networking site use and self-esteem study)
2. ways to mitigate disadvantages
a. limit time on social media per day
b. choose only positive platforms
c. learn to recognize and avoid triggers
1. draw parallels to TV
a. TV can also be positive or negative depending on usage
2. reiterate healthy methods for social media use
How to write an outline in 5 steps
Want to know how to create an outline for an essay, academic paper, or even a piece of creative writing? Here’s how to make an outline in five simple, easy-to-follow steps.
1 Research and gather sources
The first step in any writing process is preparation. For academic writing , that involves researching and collecting evidence to back up your thesis. For creative writing , that means brainstorming and coming up with ideas.
Once you know what you want to write about, you can start to plan your outline. You can always add new content later if inspiration strikes you, but generally the more content you prepare at the beginning, the smoother the rest of the writing process will go.
2 Make a list of the topics you want to cover
When you know what you want to write, whether it’s a researched argument or creative content, the next step is to organize it. The most common and effective way to organize topics is by paragraph.
Take all your research or creative ideas and group them into separate topics. Remember that each paragraph should deal with only one main topic, so be sure to group everything with their related themes. Don’t forget to connect details like statistical data to their most relevant paragraph topic.
3 Consider the best order to discuss the topics
By now you should have a scattered list of topics, ideally divided by paragraph. Your next step is to decide the optimal order the paragraphs should go in.
Consider whether a topic requires some background information or if the reader will understand it right away. Some topics should be discussed early to prepare the reader for more advanced topics later on. If you’re having trouble deciding, chronological order also works fine.
Make the backbone of your outline by putting the topics in the order you think will work best. Think of this as the first draft of your outline—you’ll be able to move things around later if you don’t like how it’s organized.
4 Fill in the details
When you’re satisfied with the structure of your paragraphs, you can start filling in supporting details like quotes and references to sources. As you may have noticed from the standard outline format example above, it’s helpful to include direct quotes and source material links directly in the outline. This makes it easier to find the source material when you’re writing the first draft—and gives you one less thing to worry about.
After you create a working outline, you can review it for areas to improve. Sometimes, when you see your topics listed out, you recognize problematic areas. Maybe you don’t have enough evidence for certain points, or maybe your writing would flow better if the paragraph order was rearranged.
It can be helpful to have someone else review the outline to notice things you haven’t, although that’s not always necessary. Sleeping on it, or taking a fresh look at your outline after a rest, can also help you notice problems you missed before.
What is an outline.
An outline is a supportive document for organizing all the topics in a piece of writing before the first draft. Think of an outline as a blueprint; a writer can simply follow the outline as they write so they don’t forget to include anything.
When should you use an outline?
Outlines are useful for all forms of writing, from academic papers to creative writing. They help compartmentalize the stages of the writing process: When writing the outline, you can focus exclusively on the structure and big picture; when writing the first draft, you can focus on writing details without being distracted by organizational concerns.
What are the parts of an outline?
Typically, outlines are broken up into sections and paragraphs, with the relevant points or evidence listed under their respective topics. This makes it easy for writers to rearrange the paragraph order if they decide to change the structure.
What does a "good" outline look like? What does a full-sentence outline look like? How do I create one?
An outline is a tool used to organize written ideas about a topic or thesis into a logical order. Outlines arrange major topics, subtopics, and supporting details. Writers use outlines when writing their papers in order to know which topic to cover in what order. Outlines for papers can be very general or very detailed. Check with your instructor to know which is expected of you. Here are some examples of different outlines. You can also learn more by watching the short video below .
The most common type of outline is an alphanumeric outline , or an outline that uses letters and numbers in the following order:
I. Roman Numerals
A. I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, etc.
B. Represent main ideas to be covered in the paper in the order they will be presented
II. Uppercase Letters
A. A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, L, etc.
B. Represent subtopics within each main idea
III. Arabic Numbers
A. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, etc.
B. Represent details or subdivisions within subtopics
IV. Lowercase Letters
A. a, b, c, d, e, f, g, h, i, j, l, m, etc.
B. Represent details within subdivisions
Outline with main ideas, subtopics, subdivisions and details :
Thesis: Drugs should be legalized.
I. Legalization of drugs would reduce crime rates
1. Before Prohibition, crime rate related to alcohol were low-to-medium
2. During Prohibition, crime rates related to alcohol were high
a. Arrests for drunkenness and disorderly conduct increase 41%
b. Federal prison population increased 366%
3. After Prohibition, crime rates related to alcohol were very low
1. Before Amsterdam had legalized marijuana, drug-related crime rates were high
2. After Amsterdam had legalized marijuana, drug-related crime rates dropped
II. Legalization of drugs would benefit the economy
1. Local taxes
2. State taxes
3. Federal taxes
B. Business Owners
1. Drug production
2. Drug quality testing
3. Drug sales
III. Legalization of drugs would benefit public health
A. Quality of drugs would increase
1. Fake/dangerous drugs eliminated
2. Fake/placebo drugs eliminated
3. Amount of active ingredient standardized and stabilized
B. Drug users with addiction issues would get more help
3. Public health clinics
C. Your people would be less likely to start drugs
F ull-sentence outline :
- Each roman numeral (I, II, III, IV…) indicates the start of a new paragraph. So I. is the first sentence of the introduction, II. is the first sentence of the first paragraph of the body, III. is the first sentence of the second paragraph of the body, and so on.
- Each capital letter (A, B, C, D…) indicates a main point within the structure of the paragraph. So in our introduction, A. is the attention getter, B. is another attention getter, C. describes a point that makes the topic personal, and D. is the thesis statement.
- Each Arabic numeral (1, 2, 3, 4…) indicates a sentence or piece of supporting evidence for each main point. So in the first body paragraph (II.), point A. is a general statement that needs some additional support, so 1. provides a supporting statement of fact and the citation of where that information came from. 2. provides another sentence with supporting evidence, as does 3.
Example of a full-sentence outline:
Warming Our World and Chilling Our Future
Thesis Statement: Today I want to share what I have learned about global warming and its causes.
I. Global warming is alive and well and thriving in Antarctica.
A. In winter 1995, an iceberg the size of Rhode Island broke off.
B. In October 1998, an iceberg the size of Delaware broke off.
C. All of us have a lot at stake.
1. Now, I am what you call a “country mouse.”
2. I love the outdoors.
3. You can be a “city mouse,” and like clean air, good water, and not having to worry about sun.
D. Today I want to share what I have learned about global warming and its causes.
II. Global warming is a gradual warming of the Earth from human activities (citation).
A. It is characterized by a high concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
1. Each year five tons of CO2 are pumped into the atmosphere (citation).
2. The carbon dioxide traps heat.
3. 1998 set temperature records (citation).
B. Carbon pollutants also eat a hole in the ozone layer (citation).
1. In 1998 this hole set a size record.
2. This allows more ultraviolet radiation to reach Earth.
C. If this problem is not corrected; we may see disastrous results (citation).
1. There could be dramatic climate changes.
a. There could be drought in the middle of continents.
b. There could be many severe storms.
c. There could be rising sea levels that would destroy coastal areas.
2. There could be serious health problems.
a. There could be an increase in skin cancer.
b. There could be an increase in cataracts.
c. There could be damaged immune systems.
D. Now that you understand what global warming is and why it is important, let’s examine its major causes.
III. The loss of woodlands adds to global warming (citation). …..
IV. Industrial emissions accelerate global warming (citation). …..
V. Personal energy consumption magnifies global warming (citation). …..
VI. In conclusion, if you want to know why we have global warming, listen for the falling trees, watch the industrial smokestacks darkening the sky, and smell the exhaust fumes we are pumping into the air.
A. Gore told a story on how global warming can sneak up on us.
B. Addressing the National Academy of Sciences, the vice president said, “If dropped into a pot of boiling water….”
C. The more we know about global warming, the more likely we are to jump and the less likely we are to be cooked.
Links & Files
- Outline Template
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- This is very helpful. Thanks a lot! by krystal on Apr 01, 2015
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- Were very helpful Thanks! by annette on Oct 18, 2015
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How to Write an Article Outline (For Thought Leaders)
Quick thought experiment. Let's say there are two experts.
Expert A is the most talented in the world at their craft.
Expert B is very good, but nowhere near the level of talent of Expert A. But Expert B is an exceptional writer, and can communicate what she knows better than any other expert in the field. She's clearer, more consistent, and a more prolific writer than Expert A.
Who's more likely to build their brand and authority?
Expert B, of course. Being the best is subjective, but you can hand off a piece of writing to anyone and it's self-explanatory. Clearly explaining what you know is a critical skill that pays huge dividends, and a reader can objectively evaluate it.
But writing doesn't come naturally for all experts. How do you get better at writing, overcome "writer's block," and logically structure your articles?
Outline your articles before you sit down to write. I'll teach you how to do it. In this article, you'll learn:
- How to write an article outline
- Why you should begin the writing process with an outline every time
- How to identify key points for your article
- Organizing your article for flow and clarity
- What an example article outline looks like, and how you can do it, too
Note #1 before you dive in: I also write with SEO in mind, despite the fact that I'm writing for a sophisticated, expert-level audience. If you're interested in learning how I outlined this article and optimized it for search, check out this video walkthrough:
Note #2: if you're writing research-driven articles, this is not the process to follow. Instead, do your research, come to conclusions guided by the research, the write your outline last.
How do you write an article outline?
Writing an article outline begins with your topic. What are you going to write about, who is it for, and what will the article do for them? Answering these simple questions is the place to start with all of your writing.
Once you have the answers to those questions, write your One Sentence describing your article. Meta as it is, I'll reference how I wrote this article throughout to illustrate how to outline. My one sentence for this article is:
How to outline a thought leadership article that also ranks in search.
Once you have your one sentence, it's time to decide how to fulfill the promise of the article. That is, what key points do you need to make in order to give the reader what you're promising?
Be exhaustive. Write out as many key points as you think you might need to make.
Then you'll organize your key points and eliminate the ones that are extraneous or don't belong. Now your article outline is taking shape.
The last step in completing your outline is to expand on each of the key points. You can think of the process like a filing cabinet. Each time you make a key point, you're making a drawer. Files in the drawer explain and substantiate the point you made. You'll go on like that until you're ready to write the article.
Here's a picture of how it works:
Outlining Is the Start of Your Writing Process
The hallmark of good writing is clarity. Simplicity wins every time. The thing about clarity is that you can't create it in your writing if it doesn't already exist in your head.
I was talking to a friend about this very topic. I asked her what her article was about in one sentence. She struggled a bit to answer, and I finally suggested "would you say it's about pursuing your passion?" Yes, she said, that's right.
She's an expert, and one of the smartest people I know. She only lacked clarity because she hadn't committed to the premise of the article upfront, before she wrote it.
In Ryan Holiday's book Perennial Best Seller , he suggests going through an exercise before creating anything that he calls One Sentence, One Paragraph, One Page. When writing an article, you need only start with One Sentence. Write down what you're making, for whom, and what it will do for them.
When I sat down to write this article, here's the One Sentence I came up with:
This article will help current and aspiring thought leaders write better content, faster, and have it rank on Google.
Good start, but it sounds like 50 articles rather than one. It's also a benefit statement - what the reader will get out of reading the article - rather than a one-sentence description of the article's topic and purpose.
Narrowing down the topic before you write, and before you even outline, will pay huge dividends in your writing process. The sharper your one-sentence description, the easier and clearer every other choice will be moving forward.
Going back to the One Sentence for this article, the original description contained way too many ideas:
- Become a thought leader
- Be a better thought leader
- Write content faster
- Write better content
- Rank your content on Google
From there I can narrow further. I write for experts and agency owners. That's enough. We'll go with that. Why do they struggle to write? They lack clarity. That makes them slower, and causes them to write boring ass vanilla content. Plus they rarely rank their content in search. What can help all of that?
An article outlining process. I did a little keyword research to see the best way to position the article (see the video above), and rewrote the One Sentence to this:
From there, I turned the One Sentence into a description that would appeal to readers:
Starting with an article outline will help your writing have more impact, focus, and even rank on search.
The One Sentence is also part of the meta description for this article, which is what searchers see on Google in their search results. I added a sentence to serve as the hook for them to be interested in clicking, telling them who the article is for and why it's important to read it:
Good thought leadership is clear, concise, and well-structured. Starting with an article outline will help your writing have more impact, focus, and even rank on search.
Once your One Sentence is decided, it's time to brainstorm key points.
Capturing the Key Points
Once you have your One Sentence, the rest of your outline is pretty easy to write. I tackle this part of the process in two separate ways:
- Writing down the key points with a pen and paper, no computer screen
- Then review what searchers want to know about the topic
At this stage, don't even think about the finished article. You're collecting, not writing. Capture whatever comes to mind.
If you're writing a how-to article, what's the sequence of steps someone will go through? What questions will they have, and where will they get stuck?
If you're writing a persuasive article, what comes to mind about the topic? How do you think about it, and how can you contrast your thinking to conventional wisdom?
If you're writing a narrative, what's the arc of the story you're going to tell? What's the conflict, and how was it overcome?
As an expert, you'll mostly write how-to or persuasive articles. Let's look at an example of each style of writing.
I love to smoke meat, and I'm an absolute amateur, but if I was going to write an article about how to smoke a brisket, I'd think about it in chronological order:
- Choosing a piece of meat
- Trimming it
- Seasoning it
- Letting it rest (and you'd better let it rest!)
That's a one minute take on an article about how to smoke a brisket. Now let's turn to a persuasive writing example.
I have a theory I call The Arc of Social Media, which posits that every new social channel starts as a giant opportunity, inevitably degrades in reach, and becomes a winner-take-all platform dominated by very few and forces everyone else to pay to play.
Here are the key points I might make in that article, broken apart in major sections:
- Why you're being lied to about social
- Who's really winning
- Social media as a system of a attention
- Supply will always outstrip demand
- Steps you can take to avoid this
Whatever your One Sentence, and whatever your article's style, you'll need to make key points in order to deliver an article that fulfills the original promise, or makes a strong argument. Write 'em all down. And when I say all, I do mean it.
Next up, you can take a look at what searchers want to know about the topic. In order to do that, you'll have to figure out a target keyword. I like doing that in the One Sentence step so it's already clear.
For this article, my target keyword is "how to write an article outline," or simply "article outline." I'll plug that into Google and look first for the autocomplete to find out what Google thinks people want to know about the topic:
From there, I'd look at the questions people have about the topic:
Then I look at the "people also search for" content area at the bottom:
In this case, I don't care about much of this information. You can always bet that "template" and "examples of" will come up for any how-to articles you write. After this quick research I have a bigger list of key points than I can possibly make. It's time to organize the key points - and eliminate.
If you'd like to use more advanced tools to perform your keyword research (or you're just curious how I do it), I recommend:
- ahrefs - for in-depth keyword research, search monitoring, and website SEO health
- Keywords Everywhere - an inexpensive Chrome plugin that appends search data to your Google searches
- Google Search Console - a free tool that lets you see the search impressions and clicks you're getting, top performing pages, and how your search traffic is trending
- Google Analytics - another free tool, not specifically to help with search, but gives you analytics data about your website
Organizing Your Thoughts
Back in 2004 the New York Times published an image of an actual PowerPoint slide presented to General Stanley McCrystal. The slide was designed to convey the complexity of the American strategy, and multitude of constraints limiting the potential success of the war (whatever that means).
When presented with the slide, McCrystal is said to have remarked "When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war." The room erupted in laughter, and no one won the war.
Luckily you're not writing about anything nearly as complex as war. Still, however accurate this image may be, it's a poor way to communicate anything meaningful, unless the goal is to convey "this is too complicated and we don't know what the fuck we're doing." If so, mission accomplished.
Breaking your article down into just the essential components, and eliminating everything else, is the next stage of your article outline. Do this in two steps:
- Reorganize your key points so they best serve your One Sentence
- Combine key points, and eliminate all those that aren't necessary
Judgment is an essential part of this process.
After a few years of making music, I began to think about every song as the consequence of over a million small decisions. Which drum sounds to use, how loud they'll be, how they're panned, whether to have an intro or not, when the bassline comes in, what it is, whether it's synthetic or electric, whether to use autotune (I joke). The list goes on. Add it all up, and you have a one-of-a-kind song.
The writing process is no different. The implications of your decisions cascade in importance, from most to least, and it all adds up to a finished product.
As you organize your thoughts, consider how your reader is most equipped to process the information, and how you want to tell the story.
Since you might be thinking it, there's no minimum number of key points need to make. But since you'll then press me to give you a non-mealy-mouthed answer, target 3-5 key points at a minimum (otherwise it's not an article, it's a note). For longer pieces, like this one, 5-10 key points are a good rule of thumb.
And don't be afraid to cut. You'd rather have readers thinking "I want more" rather than "that was too much."
You can think about the end product of organizing your key points as being similar to a book's table of contents. Here's the table of contents from Perennial Best Seller:
Notice that the chapters - the key points - tell a story on their own. You already know what the book is about and what it will cover.
The key points of your article should have the same effect, communicating the gist of your article without having to read the whole thing.
Expand On Each Key Point
Finishing your article outline is about systematically adding depth until you have a full piece of writing on your hands. It's how every outline works.
Each of your key points should support the main argument or goal of your article. Going back to the brisket example, I might expand the first key point, "choosing a piece of meat," into sub points like:
- Where to find good meat
- Target weight range
- How to visually evaluate it
- Evaluation by feel
- Ideal age of the brisket
Similarly, I can expand upon the "social media as a system of attention" point in the other example article:
- Platforms monetize through advertising
- To sell more ads, they need more attention
- To get more attention, they need more content
- When they have too much supply, they start rationing attention by charging for it
- Only a very select few will continue to get free traffic
In this way, each key point is like a little mini article on its own, building up to a complete argument.
As you expand each key point, consider what will make it a sound argument, while being interesting or novel. This is when I think about stories I might tell in the article (like the Powerpoint slide, or comparisons to music, or brisket example), statistics or facts, and more.
Once you've finished this step, you're done with your outline and ready to write your article.
Article Outline Example
Since you're going to the trouble of reading this article, I'll show you the outline I made before I sat down (or opened up my writing app) to write it.
Note the format. The article begins with an introduction to drive interest, then each major bullet is a key point, followed by sub points to make about each, and then the article ends in a conclusion.
If you have a fine-tuned sense of scrutiny, you'll also notice that the finished product is only about a 70% match to the initial outline. The writing and editing processes reveal changes, improvements, and sections that need to be cut.
Here's the article outline I made:
Article Outline Template
If you'd like to follow this process, I've made a template you can use. It includes fields and guidance for:
- One Sentence
- Target Keyword, Slug, and H1 Title / Meta Title
- Research Tools
- Organizing and Eliminating Your Key Points
- Your Full Article Outline
You can download the full article outline template using the form below, and you'll also be signed up to my email newsletter.
Getting into the habit of creating an article outline will help your writing stay more focused, more concise, and even rank in search if you incorporate SEO research into your process.
Expertise is not the same as authority. Establishing your expertise publicly will attract more of the right clients to you, and you'll clarify your own thinking in the process.
Here's my recommendation for your next step. That article you've thought about writing for months? Start outlining it now.
Write your One Sentence. Jot down as many key points off the top of your head, then bounce around Google a bit to see how people are thinking and talking about the subject.
As you build out your article outline, you'll find that you've already done the hard part. After the outline, writing isn't so daunting.
And if you decide to follow this process, email me and let me know how it goes, with a link to your article.
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Creating an Outline
What is an outline.
Creating an outline is a good step to take while writing your paper. It allows you to brainstorm new ideas and make sure your paper will be organized , focused, and supported . Many writers find it easier to write from an outline instead of starting from a blank page.
When should I write an outline?
Writing an outline can take place at any time during the writing process. Although it is most commonly used before beginning to write or doing research, this process can also take place during or after writing your paper to make sure your points are organized and make sense.
How do I write an outline?
Identify your topic or thesis statement .
Decide what points you would like to discuss during your paper.
Put your points in logical, numerical order so that each point connects back to your main point.
Write possible transitions between paragraphs.
Remember that your outline should serve as a rough idea of how your paper will develop; it does not have to be very formal or exact.
This is a rough idea of the format an outline can have:
Secondary or supporting idea to main idea I
Secondary idea to B
Secondary idea to 2
Secondary or supporting idea to main idea II
You can use any form of this example to write your outline. Everyone organizes differently, so it is important to do what works best for you. If you have any questions, feel free to come to the Writing Center and work with a tutor on creating your outline.
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Article Writing Tips: How to Write an Outline
If you’re a writer, you need to know how to write an outline for articles and posts.
But even if you know where to begin, how can you know that your article idea is a good one?
Begin with an outline.
An outline is simply a plan. It’s a plan you follow as you write so that you make your point.
Here's a Sample Outline
You decide what kind of outline works for you for a particular project. Yours can be a detailed, beautifully formatted document with multiple points, sub-points, and sub-points to sub-points. Or it can be 3 words scribbled on the back of a napkin. Style matters less than simply having a plan.
Title: How to Write an Outline
- Introduction: Plan What You Want to Say
- Main Points: Plan How to Say It
- Conclusion: Plan a Takeaway
1. Introduction: Plan What You Want to Say
- Introduction: give readers a simple, practical structure to use to write an outline for a quality article or blog post.
Writing tip: if you can’t write this part of your outline right out the gate, start with step 2. I’ve found writing down the main points first can help me clarify the purpose of my article.
2. Main Points: Plan How to Say It
Make a plan to communicate your point. I did – and now my outline looks like this:
1. Introduction: give readers a simple, practical structure to use to write an outline for a quality article or blog post.
- Organize your material. What points do you have that support your main idea? List them and how you will make each point with a fact or statistic, a testimonial, an anecdote or example.
- Choose the points you want to make. Which points are strongest for your audience? What are your word count restrictions? You may need to discard some content and keep it for another piece.
- Arrange your points in order. You may choose the inverted pyramid approach , placing the strongest point at the beginning. In other scenarios, your points build upon each other in a cumulative effect. And in other cases, your points are modular, meaning each can stand alone.
- Flesh out each point with its supporting content: a story, fact, statistic, quote, example, or narrative.
3. Conclusion: Plan a Takeaway
Now that you think you’ve done the hard work to get ready to write, you may be tempted to rehash your main idea and simply summarize your content. But by simply regurgitating your content and disguising it as a conclusion, you miss an opportunity. Instead, give your reader something that makes her think – a twist or a surprise. Now my outline looks like this:
2. Main Points:
- Arrange your points in order. You may choose the inverted pyramid approach, placing the strongest point at the beginning. In other scenarios, your points build upon each other in a cumulative effect. And in other cases, your points are modular, meaning each can stand alone. ( Read more about 6 outline formats .)
3. Conclusion: Surprise your reader with a twist that makes her think differently about your main point. (See tips for writing powerful endings .)
After all, that’s the goal in writing your piece, isn’t it? To make a point.
No plan, no point.
Make a plan. Write an outline.
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Writing a Paper: Outlining
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Example outline, introduction/context, thesis/purpose statement, major & minor points, outlining video, related resources.
- Webpage Feedback
- Organizing Your Thoughts
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- Developing Arguments
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- Revising for Focused Ideas
- Revising for Stronger Evidence
- Revising for Effective Organization
- Revising for Scholarly Voice
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Outlining your first draft by listing each paragraph's topic sentence can be an easy way to ensure that each of your paragraphs is serving a specific purpose in your paper. You may find opportunities to combine or eliminate potential paragraphs when outlining—first drafts often contain repetitive ideas or sections that stall, rather than advance, the paper's central argument .
Additionally, if you are having trouble revising a paper, making an outline of each paragraph and its topic sentence after you have written your paper can be an effective way of identifying a paper's strengths and weaknesses.
The following outline is for a 5-7 page paper discussing the link between educational attainment and health. Review the other sections of this page for more detailed information about each component of this outline!
A. Current Problem: Educational attainment rates are decreasing in the United States while healthcare costs are increasing. B. Population/Area of Focus: Unskilled or low-skilled adult workers C. Key Terms: healthy, well-educated Thesis Statement: Because of their income deficit (cite sources) and general susceptibility to depression (cite sources), students who drop out of high school before graduation maintain a higher risk for physical and mental health problems later in life.
A. Historical Employment Overview: Unskilled laborers in the past were frequently unionized and adequately compensated for their work (cite sources). B. Historical Healthcare Overview: Unskilled laborers in the past were often provided adequate healthcare and benefits (cite sources). C. Current Link between Education and Employment Type: Increasingly, uneducated workers work in unskilled or low-skilled jobs (cite sources). D. Gaps in the Research: Little information exists exploring the health implications of the current conditions in low-skilled jobs.
III. Major Point 1: Conditions of employment affect workers' physical health.
A. Minor Point 1: Unskilled work environments are correlated highly with worker injury (cite sources). B. Minor Point 2: Unskilled work environments rarely provide healthcare or adequate injury recovery time (cite sources).
IV. Major Point 2: Conditions of employment affect workers' mental health
A. Minor Point 1: Employment in a low-skilled position is highly correlated with dangerous levels of stress (cite sources). B. Minor Point 2: Stress is highly correlated with mental health issues (cite sources).
V. Major Point 3: Physical health and mental health correlate directly with one another.
A. Minor Point 1: Mental health problems and physical health problems are highly correlated (cite sources). B. Minor Point 2: Stress manifests itself in physical form (cite sources)
VI. Major Point 4: People with more financial worries have more stress and worse physical health.
A. Minor Point 1: Many high-school dropouts face financial problems (cite sources). B. Minor Point 2: Financial problems are often correlated with unhealthy lifestyle choices such unhealthy food choices, overconsumption/abuse of alcohol, chain smoking, abusive relationships, etc. (cite sources).
A. Restatement of Thesis: Students who drop out of high school are at a higher risk for both mental and physical health problems throughout their lives. B. Next Steps: Society needs educational advocates; educators need to be aware of this situation and strive for student retention in order to promote healthy lifestyles and warn students of the risks associated with dropping out of school.
Your introduction provides context to your readers to prepare them for your paper's argument or purpose. An introduction should begin with discussion of your specific topic (not a broad background overview) and provide just enough context (definitions of key terms, for example) to prepare your readers for your thesis or purpose statement.
Sample Introduction/Context: If the topic of your paper is the link between educational attainment and health, your introduction might do the following: (a) establish the population you are discussing, (b) define key terms such as healthy and well-educated , or (c) justify the discussion of this topic by pointing out a connection to a current problem that your paper will help address.
A thesis or purpose statement should come at the end of your introduction and state clearly and concisely what the purpose or central argument of your paper is. The introduction prepares your reader for this statement, and the rest of the paper follows in support of it.
Sample Thesis Statement: Because of their income deficit (Smith, 2010) and general susceptibility to depression (Jones, 2011), students who drop out of high school before graduation maintain a higher risk for physical and mental health problems later in life.
After the initial introduction, background on your topic often follows. This paragraph or section might include a literature review surveying the current state of knowledge on your topic or simply a historical overview of relevant information. The purpose of this section is to justify your own project or paper by pointing out a gap in the current research which your work will address.
Sample Background: A background section on a paper on education and health might include an overview of recent research in this area, such as research on depression or on decreasing high school graduation rates.
Major points are the building blocks of your paper. Major points build on each other, moving the paper forward and toward its conclusion. Each major point should be a clear claim that relates to the central argument of your paper.
Sample Major Point: Employment and physical health may be a good first major point for this sample paper. Here, a student might discuss how dropping out of high school often leads to fewer employment opportunities, and those employment opportunities that are available tend to be correlated with poor work environments and low pay.
Minor points are subtopics within your major points. Minor points develop the nuances of your major points but may not be significant enough to warrant extended attention on their own. These may come in the form of statistics, examples from your sources, or supporting ideas.
Sample Minor Point: A sample minor point of the previous major point (employment and physical health) might address worker injury or the frequent lack of health insurance benefits offered by low-paying employers.
The rest of the body of your paper will be made up of more major and minor points. Each major point should advance the paper's central argument, often building on the previous points, until you have provided enough evidence and analysis to justify your paper's conclusion.
More Major and Minor Points: In this paper, more major points might include mental health of high school dropouts, healthcare access for dropouts, and correlation between mental and physical health. Minor topics could include specific work environments, job satisfaction in various fields, and correlation between depression and chronic illness.
Your conclusion both restates your paper's major claim and ties that claim into a larger discussion. Rather than simply reiterating each major and minor point, quickly revisit your thesis statement and focus on ending the paper by tying your thesis into current research in your field, next steps for other researchers, your broader studies, or other future implications.
Sample Conclusion: For this paper, a conclusion might restate the central argument (the link between lack of education and health issues) and go on to connect that discussion to a larger discussion of the U.S. healthcare or education systems.
Note that this video was created while APA 6 was the style guide edition in use. There may be some examples of writing that have not been updated to APA 7 guidelines.
- Prewriting Demonstrations: Outlining (video transcript)
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How to write and pitch a successful article outline
Pitch article outlines and ideas to magazine editors successfully with outstanding advice for freelance writers from the archives of Writing Magazine - with a helpful example of the query that led to this article being commissioned. ...
Pitch article outlines and ideas to magazine editors successfully with outstanding advice for freelance writers from the archives of Writing Magazine - with a helpful example of the query that led to this article being commissioned.
Increasingly, magazines are asking for a pre-submission outline before considering a possible feature article. Outlines can be a good thing for both editors and writers.
An outline gives the editor an opportunity to judge whether the feature is likely to be of interest – and whether the writer can handle it. An outline lets the writer sort out his/her ideas – and maybe get a go-ahead – before actually writing the feature.
An outline is a 'taster' for the eventual article. Too long and you might as well submit the complete article – and the editor won't like that. So it needs to be as brief as possible – a single page – while providing a summary of the eventual content. And unless you are already known to the editor, you need to spell out your 'credentials' for writing on the subject: to sell yourself.
What to include in your article outline
Think of an outline as a three-part document: • The title and 'hook', to grab the editor's attention • Details of the planned content • A brief statement of your 'credentials'
Before you start writing the outline, you need to be clear in your mind what your purpose is. Not long ago I wrote an article about Japanese netsuke. My purpose was clear – to interest the 'ordinary reader' in these tiny ivory carvings and suggest that they were good 'collectables'. My purpose in writing a how-to feature like this is equally clear – to show the beginner how to do something relevant. I script one-page non-fiction picture stories for a children's magazine: my purpose there is also clear – to make potentially dull facts interesting to the young readers.
Provide the title and hook that will keep readers interested
The most important part of any article is the beginning. If you don't grab your reader within the first paragraph or so, they may not bother to read on. The title and the 'hook' – the opening paragraph – need careful thought. They will be an essential element of your outline. For now, you need to grab the editor's attention. The word 'successful' is used in the title of this article. That is always a good eye-catcher. Note too how quickly I mention the benefits of the outline to the reader-writer.
What content to include and how to structure your article outline
You need to give much 'pre-outline' thought to the actual content of any article: the points to be made and the best – most logical – order in which to make them. If you are writing an historical feature this could be structured along strictly sequential lines – or it might be possible to use flashback. Start with an account of some particularly thrilling episode – to grab the reader – then go back to the historical beginning. Say something like, 'But it all began some weeks earlier...'
With a how-to article, the straightforward '1–2–3–4' sequence is almost always best. With an article incorporating a collection of varied facts, the 'twin peaks' structure is worth considering: start with one particularly interesting fact, and end with another. A circular structure is also often a good idea – at the end, refer back to a point raised in the opening paragraph. It gives the reader a 'satisfied' feeling.
For an outline, you need to decide in advance the structure you will adopt. Once decided, briefly list the key elements – bullet points are useful here.
Give your credentials as the most suitable writer for this article
In the third part of an outline, we come to your 'credentials'. For the Japanese netsuke article I mentioned that I had a small collection of netsuke and that I had studied their history. A selective – writer's – biog is also sometimes appropriate: mention any relevant publishing credits.
You might also, within the 'credentials' section of the outline, also like to check on the length the editor wants, and/or whether he wants black and white or colour illustrations. In America, writers often incorporate their outline-query within a sales-letter. In the UK, a one-sheet outline plus a simple, brief, covering letter works best. Below is the outline that I submitted to the editor of Writing Magazine for this article. It worked for me. ?
The outline that worked when proposing this article
Increasingly, magazines are asking for a pre-submission outline before considering a possible feature article. Outlines can be a good thing for both editors and writers. An outline gives the editor an opportunity to judge whether the feature is likely to be of interest – and whether the writer can handle it. An outline lets the writer sort out his/her ideas – and maybe get a go-ahead – before actually writing the feature.
Then … • An outline has three parts: title and hook, content, and writer's 'credentials'. • Before preparing the outline, the writer must be clear as to the article's purpose. • The title and hook are important to the article, and must lead off the outline. • The outline should include a structured list of the contents of the eventual article. • The final part of the outline should incorporate the writer's 'credentials'. • If the editor welcomes email queries, submit the outline to them, otherwise send by post with covering letter and sae.
The article itself will be illustrated by this outline – 'one that worked'. Article plus outline-illustration will be approximately 900 words overall. I am well-qualified to write this article. As you know ... (contact details, etc.) This article originally appeared in the May 2004 issue of Writing Magazine .
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How to write an outline
An outline presents a picture of the main ideas and the subsidiary ideas of a subject. Some typical uses of outlining might be an essay, a term paper, a book review, or a speech. For any of these, an outline will show a basic overview and important details. It's a good idea to make an outline for yourself even if it isn't required by your professor, as the process can help put your ideas in order.
Some professors will have specific requirements, like requiring the outline to be in sentence form or have a "Discussion" section. A student’s first responsibility, of course, is to follow the requirements of the particular assignment. What follows illustrates only the basics of outlining.
Basic outline form
The main ideas take Roman numerals (I, II, ...) and should be in all-caps. Sub-points under each main idea take capital letters (A, B, ...) and are indented. Sub-points under the capital letters, if any, take Arabic numerals (1, 2, ...) and are further indented. Sub-points under the numerals, if any, take lowercase letters (a, b, ...) and are even further indented.
- Subsidiary idea or supporting idea to I
- Subsidiary idea to B
- Subsidiary idea to 2
- Subsidiary or supporting idea to II
- Subsidiary idea to II
It is up to the writer to decide on how many main ideas and supporting ideas adequately describe the subject. However, traditional form dictates that if there is a I in the outline, there has to be a II ; if there is an A , there has to be a B ; and so forth.
Suppose you are outlining a speech about gerrymandering, and these are some of the ideas you feel should be included: voter discrimination, "majority-minority" districts, the history of the term, and several Supreme Court cases.
To put these ideas into outline form, decide first on the main encompassing ideas. These might be: I. History of the term, II. Redistricting process, III. Racial aspects, IV. Current events.
Next, decide where the rest of the important ideas fit in. Are they part of the redistricting process, or do they belong under racial aspects? The complete outline might look like this:
Gerrymandering in the U.S.
- HISTORY OF THE TERM
- Responsibility of state legislatures
- Census data
- Partisan approaches
- Gomillion v. Lightfoot (1960)
- Voter discrimination
- Voting Rights Act (1965)
- Majority-minority districts
- Effects of gerrymandering in 2012 and 2016 elections
- Gill v. Whitford Supreme Court Case
It is only possible to make an outline if you have familiarity with the subject. As you do research, you may find it necessary to add, subtract or change the position of various ideas. If you change your outline, ensure that logical relationship among ideas is preserved.
To gain an initial familiarity with your topic, look it up in Gale Virtual Reference Library (a.k.a. "Academic Wikipedia"), a collection of entries from specialized encyclopedias. GVRL provides topic overviews, many of which are organized with an outline themselves.
Tardiff, E., and Brizee, A. (2013). Developing an outline . In Purdue OWL . Look at all three sections. The third includes an example.
Lester, J.D., and Lester, Jr., J.D. (2010). Writing research papers: A complete guide (13th ed.). New York: Longman. Includes several models, including for a general-purpose academic paper. Check it out from the Stacks LB2369 .L4 2010.
Turabian, K.L. (2013). A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Request John Jay's copy from the Reference Desk (call number LB2369 .T8 2013).
Created by J. Dunham, 2003. Revised by R. Davis, Oct. 2017.
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An outline is a map of your essay. It shows what information each section or paragraph will contain, and in what order. Most outlines use numbers and/or bullet points to arrange information and convey points.
Why create an outline?
Outlining is a tool we use in the writing process to help organize our ideas, visualize our paper’s potential structure, and to further flesh out and develop points. It allows the writer to understand how he or she will connect information to support the thesis statement and the claims of the paper. An outline provides the writer with a space to consider ideas easily without needing to write complete paragraphs or sentences.
Creating your outline:
Before beginning an outline, it is useful to have a clear thesis statement or clear purpose or argument, as everything else in the outline is going to work to support the thesis. Note: the outline might help inform the thesis, and therefore your thesis might change or develop within the outlining process.
Organize your outline in whatever format fits into the structure needed for the type of paper you are writing. One common outline format uses Roman numerals, letters, and numbers. Other outlines can use bullet points or other symbols. You can use whatever organizational patterns work best for you and your paper, as long as you understand your own organizational tools. Outlines can be written using complete sentences or fragments or a mix of the two.
Remember! After creating your outline, you may decide to reorganize your ideas by putting them in a different order. Furthermore, as you are writing you might make some discoveries and can, of course, always adjust or deviate from the outline as needed.
As you can see in the outline below, the writer chose to separate the outline by topics, but could have utilized a different structure, organizing the outline by separate paragraphs, indicating what each paragraph will do or say.
- Introduction A. Background information B. Thesis
- Reason 1 A. Use quotes from x B. Use evidence from y
- Reason 2 A. Counterargument 1. They might say… 2. But…
- Conclusion A. Connect back to thesis B. Answer the “so what” or “what now” question C. End on a memorable note
Note: The sample outline above illustrates the structure of an outline, but it is quite vague. Your outline should be as specific as possible.
- Summary/ Synopsis of proposed project • Rationale • Specific aims and objectives • Experimental approaches to be used • The potential significance
- Specific Aims • X • Y • Z
- Background and Significance • Background • Significance to current project • Significance to long-term research objectives • Critical evaluations of existing knowledge • Forward progress
- Preliminary Data • Description of prelim data to justify the rationale • Demonstrate feasibility of the project
- Experimental Design and Methods • Details of design and procedures • Protocols • Means of data analysis and interpretation • New methodology and its advantages • Potential technical difficulties or limitations/ alternative approaches
- References • Citations
Note: Outlines can look quite different. You might use Roman numerals to indicate the main point or function of that section, and then letters to indicate separate sub-points, and then even bullet points or numbers to indicate specific information, like using certain quotes, sources, evidence, or examples.
Adapted From: Los Angeles Valley College Writing Center, “How to Make an Outline” 2/2/15
Northwestern University Collaborative Learning and Integrated Mentoring in the Biosciences, “A Basic Proposal Outline”
San Jose State University Writing Center, “Essay Planning: Outlining with a Purpose” Spring 2014
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An outline presents a picture of the main ideas and the subsidiary ideas of a subject. Some typical uses of outlining might be an essay, a term paper
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