Like a cluster map or other graphic organizers, an outline is a way to visually see the relationships between ideas you are gathering. Outlines can also be useful when you are reading what someone else has written to determine what the main ideas are in their writing.

You can create an outline by hand or on a computer. If you create one by hand, leave a blank space so you can fit additional ideas in within different areas. Using a computer for your outline is preferable, however, since you can easily add ideas and move ideas around.

Start with your core idea as the beginning point of the outline. Then use Roman numerals to add the subtopics followed by indented capital letters for the details. If you add finer details, you can use further-indented numbers for the next level and even-further-indented lowercase letters for a level after that. When using a computer, the preset tabs are most likely fine for the indenting.

Here's an example of an outline. This one is probably more useful for writing, since it doesn't include full sentences. This gives you more room to change things once you start writing the paper. Remember, an outline is just a rough guide to what you will write; it doesn't take the place of writing itself. In contrast to a mindmap, an outline is mainly intended to show the order in which you will discuss topics in your paper.

Paper Topic: How to Get Your Own Website for Your Business (process essay - shows steps to do something)

I. Introduction

                A. Importance of Websites in Today’s World

                B. Main Reasons Why Businesses Need a Website

                C. Lead-in to Main Body of Essay: Will Explain Steps in Getting Your Own Website

II. Instructions

A. Step 1: Choosing a Hosting Provider for a Website

                1. Main Criteria for Choosing: Price, Ease of Use, Performance, Reliability, Features, Support

                2. List of Several Main Options
B. Step 2: Register a Domain Name

C. Step 3: Sign Up with Provider (using WordPress in this Paper)

D. Step 4: Create Content

                1. Essential Pages for a Business Website

E. Step 5: Promote Website to Search Engines

III. Conclusion

                A. Recap of Steps

                B. Benefits You Should Expect to Receive from Your New Website

As with the mapping process, once you have included all the ideas you have, take a break and return to your outline later. If, in the meantime, a thought comes to you, take a minute to add it. When you are satisfied with your outline, use it to guide your writing process. However, keep in mind that your outline is only a tool you are using, and you will vary from it when you have other ideas along the way.

For a research paper that has a thesis and supporting details, an outline format could be:

I. Introduction: 
A. [Description of Topic]
B. [Thesis]
II. Main Body
A. [Supporting Detail 1]
B. [Supporting Detail 2]
C. [Supporting Detail 3]
D. [Additional Supporting Details (if there are more)]
III. Conclusion
A. [Summarizing Statement]
All those items in brackets are where you would fill in the details for your particular subject. Note that for a multi-page research paper, you will need to make your supporting details more than one paragraph long, so you may want to add numbers (1,2,3,etc.) under each of the letters in your main body section to help you determine how you will organize those sections.

Key Takeaways

  • Outlining uses Roman numerals, numbers, letters, and indenting to visually show how ideas are related and the sequence in which you will discuss them in your draft. Just listing the ideas that will be in your paper, or connecting them with arrows (as in a mind map) doesn't indicate the sequence.
  • You can create an outline by hand, but using a computer gives you much greater flexibility to add ideas and move ideas around.
  • Use short phrases instead of full sentences if possible to give yourself more room to change your ideas once you start writing the actual paper.
  • Within an outline, the numbering/lettering order is typically done as follows:



This text was adapted by City Vision University from a text provided by The Saylor Foundation under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 License.

The original text is Chapter 5.4 of http://www.saylor.org/site/textbooks/Handbook%20for%20Writers.pdf