Writing An Outline

An outline is a road map of your writing project. It organizes your thoughts, the points and the ideas you want to make. There is a specific structure to an outline. It’s even been standardized in some word processing packages.

The best way to start your outline is to put down your main points. The standard here is to use Roman numerals. Points you want to make that support your main points are sub-points. These points are noted by using capital letters. The process continues until all the sub-points have found a home and all major points have sub-points supporting them.

If you follow this blueprint, your ideas will flow smoothly.

When Should The Outline Be Written

Ideally, the outline should be created before you start the writing process.  Writing your outline is to keep part of the creative process for writing anything of much length. It’s a point in the process after you’ve chosen your topic, where you organize your thinking about what you want to say about a topic. This organization will help streamline your research efforts, ensure you have enough material to warrant the writing of the topic in first place, and allow you to organize the flow of the presentation of the material.

Writing an Outline

Short works do not necessarily need an extensive outline. However, the longer your work, the more complex and complete your outline needs to be. Once you’re into writing an outline, the process becomes easier as you go along. The more complete your outline is, the easier it is to write the sentences that weave your ideas together. Additionally, the more complete the outline, the less likely you are to miss a key area or topic you wish to discuss. Also, an outline can provide an opportunity to solidify your point of view as you write to your outline.

Do Your Research

Do you do your research before or after you do your outline? It depends! You should have enough research done to know what direction your work will take. You still can change or adjust that direction as you do additional research. It is important, though, to have some research done. As you develop your outline, you can leave blanks for the results of research work yet to be done. On the other hand, if you work to complete all your research before you begin the outline, you may find yourself stuck in the paralysis of analysis or that you decided to take a different direction from what you had when you perform your initial research and, therefore, need to go back to research to complete the scope of your outline.

Organize Your Thoughts

Once you have started your outline and have stated your thesis, it is time to organize your thoughts. Decide on your audience. That will influence your decisions on voice and style. You are ready to make decisions about what you will include and what you will not.  As you compose your first draft, you may find additional information you didn’t have when you made the outline, but that’s okay. Outlines are malleable and adjustments are common, but creating an outline will give you a blueprint for success.

Writing Tip: Do not throw any unused notes away, though, you never know when you will be able to use them in the future find a place where they fit when you start writing the body of the outline sections.

Importance of Structure

No matter what the purpose of your writing, the structure of your outline should be consistent throughout the project. Maintaining consistency helps you determine if your points are put in logical and easy-to-follow order. Once your outline is complete, writing the body of your work consists primarily of filling in the blanks and tying your points together. It also helps when you review your outline to make sure you have put in everything you intended to include.

Writing and using an outline is important. Using index cards and sticky notes that can be moved around can help you as you polish your outline. They can help you keep track of facts in writing project. The more you use outlines, the easier it will become to focus and organize your thinking and writing.

The Benefits Of Writing An Outline

Creating an outline as part of the writing process can save writers the frustration of staring at a blank screen waiting for ideas. While outlines seem like a time-consuming extra step, they save time by providing “structure that can quickly become more elaborate and detailed” state Cheryl Glenn and Loretta Gray, authors of the “Hodges Harbrace Handbook.” Regardless of the type of outline, there are several advantages to using an outlining when writing. The reasons why defining a structure and creating an outline for your writing project is so important:

Outlines Make Writing Easier

When you go to sit down to work, you know exactly what parts of your writing project need to get done. And remember, just because you have an ordered outline, you are NOT committed to writing it in order. You can start anywhere.

Outlines Make Your Message Memorable

Readers can remember your message when there is a structure attached to it. It makes abstract concepts more memorable and enables readers to feel they have gained something they can take away from the writing project after they have finished it.

Outlines Help Ensure You Are Thorough

If you have an outline, you won’t accidentally omit something vital to your message or storyline.

Outlines Help Limit Continuity Errors

While thoroughness refers to ensuring that all important thoughts and details are included in your text, continuity refers to ensuring your thoughts and events following a logical sequence. An outline can help you see the continuity of your writing project before writing it.

Outlines Help Ensure Your Work Has Symmetry

Symmetry means that all the assembled parts of your work have a “shape” when pieced all together.

Outlines Help Ensure Your Work Has Balance

A good outline can help you see if some parts of your work are less substantial than others. A well-balanced work is organized in such a way that the ideas are balanced both in quantity and in quality against each other.

Outlines Help Keep You Focused

When you have an outline (and stick to it) you won’t be as tempted to go off on a tangent. This doesn’t mean you will NEVER deviate or come up with great new ideas. But if the outline is there, you can see how these new ideas fit into your original intention.

Outlines Help To Motivate You

When you have an outline, you see yourself making progress and ticking off the “boxes”, so to speak. This helps keep you motivated as you move closer and closer to your goal of finishing your writing project.

Outlines Help You Develop A Regular Writing Practice

If you have an outline to depend upon, you are far more likely to sit down at your desk (or wherever you happen to write) and start writing rather than waiting for the “muse” to shoot arrows at you.

Outlines Provide a Writing Plan

An Outline helps writers create a writing plan. Writers can test which ideas work well together and which examples the best support their topics. With an outline, writers can move information around, see gaps in logic and experiment before committing to a full draft. Outlines enable writers to visualize whether they have included enough information for an introduction, body, and conclusion.

Outlines Help You Stay Organized

The organization of works can be challenging when writers generate pages of text and then try to impose order. Often, the work will be marked by repetition and include irrelevant content. This is where an outline can save the day. With the thesis, topics, and sub-topics already in place, the writer does not have to stop the flow of writing. She can just use the outline as a template and expand with details.

Outlines Make Reading Easier

Writing projects that have a structure that is easier for readers to comprehend.  With an outline, writers have already laid out how they will proceed with writing their work, which prevents meandering aimlessly on the page and confusing readers. With most of the heavy lifting done, writers need only to refer to their outline to keep their writing on track. Outlines are especially helpful when writing longer works, where forgetting important points and sources are more likely. An outline is a detailed roadmap.

Creating Outlines

in this modern age of tools, it is possible to allow the tools to build the outline for you. For example, in Microsoft Word you can use either the table of contents capabilities or the outline capabilities, to organize your outline. This can be a very dynamic way to build an outline.  To use this approach, once you’ve applied your headers and subheadings to create your outline, it is recommended that you do a ‘save as’ assign a document name and the suffix (e.g. Why_Apples_Are_Red_Manuscript_Outline). Then you can, can make a copy or do another ‘save as’ (e.g. Why_Apples_Are_Red_Manuscript_Outline) and begin filling in you outline sections with the details of the body of your work.  This will allow you to both have a backup copy of your outline for reference, but to literally use your outline as a skeleton for the actual writing of the body of the work.

Manual Outline Creation Guidelines

If for some reason, you are doing it by hand or need to create a more formal outline; then the general guidelines below may be useful.

Below is one way to format a traditional Roman numeral outline. Always follow your instructor’s or publisher’s guidelines, as they may require certain elements not described here.

Traditional Alphanumeric Outline

This is the most common type of outline, and often the style your instructor will expect. The outline format always begins with Roman numeral I, and follows these characters, in this order:

  • Roman Numerals
  • Capitalized Letters
  • Arabic Numerals
  • Lowercase Letters

Hopefully, you remember your Roman numerals from grade school. If not, don’t worry; you shouldn’t have to count too high!

  1. The main point follows a Roman numeral.
    A. Minor points follow capital letters.
    B. Each minor point must refer to the major point above.
              1.) If there are subpoints below the minor point, use Arabic numerals.
              2.) Indent each point according to its importance.
              3.) Each subpoint must be related to the minor point it follows.
                   a. If there are points below subpoints, use lower case letters.
                   b. Indent below the subpoint; must relate to point above.
                        i.) Sometimes, there are even smaller subdivisions.
                       ii.) Use small Roman numerals with one parenthesis to separate.
         C. The next minor point below the major point.
    II. Next Major point follows Roman numeral II.
         A. Minor point
         B. Minor point

Below is an example of an outline of a short work on “The College Application Process.” If you are composing a longer research work, simply add Roman numerals to follow your main points:


    A. Visit and evaluate college campuses
    B. Visit and evaluate college websites
    1.) Look for interesting classes
    2.) Note important statistics
    A. Write personal statement
    1.) Choose interesting topic
    a. Describe an influential person in your life
    1.) Favorite high school teacher
    2.) Grandparent
    b. Describe a challenging life event
    2.) Include important personal details
    a. Volunteer work
    b. Participation in varsity sports
    B. Revise personal statement
    A. List relevant coursework
    B. List work experience
    C. List volunteer experience
    1.) Tutor at foreign language summer camp
    2.) Counselor for suicide prevention hotline

The main points of your topic will look like an abbreviated topic sentence for each paragraph. So, the first Roman numeral or “I” would be for the introductory paragraph. The next Roman numeral or “II” will be for first body paragraph. The third “III” for the second body, and so on. When the outline is complete, each Roman numeral should equal the number of paragraphs in the work.

Also, note in the example above that following each Roman Numeral, capitalized a letter, Arabic numeral, and lowercase letter, you’ll insert a period and one space.