An outline presents a picture of the main ideas and the subsidiary ideas of any subject. Some typical uses of outlining are: a class reading assignment, 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.
Some professors will require an outline in sentence form, or require the main points to be in chronological order, or have other specific requirements. A student�s first responsibility, of course, is to follow the requirements of the particular assignment. What follows illustrates only the basics of outlining. The library presents it as a quick reminder because students often ask about outlining, and the information is not easy to find quickly in various reference books.
BASIC OUTLINE FORM
Below is a synopsis of the outline form. The main ideas take roman numerals. Sub-points under each main idea take capital letters and are indented. Sub-points under the capital letters, if any, take italic numbers and are further indented.
I. MAIN IDEA
A. Subsidiary idea or supporting idea to I
B. Subsidiary idea or supporting idea to I
1. Subsidiary idea to B
2. Subsidiary idea to B
a) Subsidiary idea to 2
b) Subsidiary idea to 2
II. MAIN IDEA
A. Subsidiary or supporting idea to II
B. Subsidiary idea to II
C. Subsidiary idea to II
III. MAIN IDEA
It is up to the writer to decide on how many main ideas and supporting ideas adequately describe the subject. However, 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; if there is a 1, there has to be a 2, and so forth.
Suppose you are outlining a speech on AIDS, and these are some of the ideas you feel should be included: AZT, Transmittal, AIDS babies, Teenagers, Safe sex, Epidemic numbers, Research.
To put these ideas into outline form, decide first on the main encompassing ideas. These might be: I. Transmittal, II. Societal Consequences, III. Research.
Next, decide where the rest of the important ideas fit in. Are they part of AIDS transmittal or AIDS societal consequences or AIDS research solutions? The complete outline might look like this:
Major Aspects of Aids
I. Transmittal of AIDS
B. Body fluids
II. Societal Consequences of AIDS
A. Epidemic disease pattern
B. AIDS babies
C. Increased homophobia
D. Overburdened health care
III. Research Solutions to AIDS
B. HIV virus
C. Other viruses
It is only possible to make an outline if you have familiarity with the subject. Not only in the initial outline, but during the course of the research, the writer may find it necessary to add, subtract or change the position of various ideas. This is acceptable as long as the logical relationship among ideas is preserved.
Campbell, W. G. (1954). Form and style in thesis writing. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Ellis, B. L. (1971). How to write themes and terms papers. New York: Barron�s
Gibaldi, J. & Achtert, W. S. (1984). MLA handbook for writers of research papers.
New York: Modern Language Association.
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by Kathleen Lietzau
(printable version here)
by Kathleen Lietzau
What is an Outline?
An outline is a way of formally arranging and developing ideas. Though structured, there is a great amount of flexibility in making an outline. It can be made either before there is a single word on the paper or after a draft or two. It can quickly cover the main ideas (Topic Outline) or become a detailed, in-depth undertaking (Sentence Outline).
The purpose of an outline is to help organize a paper by checking to see if and how ideas connect to each other, or whether some points need more support. No matter the length of the paper, outlines can help a writer see the overall picture. Besides the basic structure, there is no right or wrong way to make an outline. Writers should do what works best for the topic and themselves.
Crafting an Outline
1. Identify the topic. This is not simply copying and pasting the words from the prompt. A good topic should be what the writer wants to express about an idea, preferably in a single sentence or phrase. The more specific the topic, the easier it is to keep the paper focused.
2. Figure out the main points. What are the main ideas to convey or need to convince the audience? These points usually answer the questions "why or how is the main topic important and right?" Together with the topic, these points construct a thesis.
3. Arrange the main points in a logical order and list them in the outline. This order can always be changed later.
4. Create sub-points beneath each major idea. If there aren’t at least two “sub-points” for each main idea, that idea may not be that relevant to the topic. Outlines can help identify these.
5. Evaluate the outline. Look over the outline. Does it make logical sense? Is each point suitably fleshed out? Is there anything unnecessary?
Potential Outline Structures
The standard order of an outline is:
I. Roman numerals (I, II, III, IV, V, etc.)
A. Capital letters (A, B, C, etc.)
1. Arabic numerals (1, 2, 3, etc.)
a. Small letters (a, b, c, etc.)
i. Small Roman numerals (i, ii, iii, iv, v, etc.)
Note that Microsoft Word tends to use a different system of ordering, though this can be changed. Check to see if the professor requires a specific numbering system.
Topic outlines help a writer see a larger structure through a series of short ideas. This type of outline is particularly helpful when writing about a variety of ideas or issues that could be ordered in any number of ways.
An example of a topic outline is:
I. What is an outline?
Each part of the outline consists of just a few words and conveys the basic idea of what belongs there without going into too much detail. It is very easy to look over quickly and see the “big picture”, as well as all the main points the paper will discuss.The short phrases also make sentence outlines easy to rearrange. Clustering can be a great place to start a topic outline.
In contrast to a topic outline, a sentence outline goes into the little details of the paper and can therefore be useful for more complex topics, or providing a more detailed structures.The advantage of this type of outline is seeing exactly what a paper will be about, rather than just relying on key words to spark ideas. Sentence outlines generally contain short phrases or sentences describing what each section will cover. In addition, this type of outline can also contain the quotations and/or subsequent analysis. This tactic can help by ensuring the papers has enough support for main ideas as well as reminding the writer to actually analyze and discuss quotations. Some people also find it easier to move from a micro outline to the paper since there is already so much detail and support, and they can simply continue to expand on the ideas with further analysis.
I. What is an Outline?
A. An outline formally arranges and develops ideas
B. The purpose of an outline is to help organize a paper, checking to see if and how ideas connect to each other
II. Topic Outlines
A. Topic outlines help create a larger picture through a series of short phrases
1. Each part of the outline consists of just a few words and conveys the basic idea of the section
2. It is very easy to quickly look over and see the big picture, making sure all of the paper’s points are present.
III. Sentence Outlines
A. Sentence outlines go into the little details of the paper and are particularly useful when the topic is complex in nature
B. It can sometimes be useful to insert the quotations that may be used and subsequent analysis into a sentence outline
Moving from the Outline to the Paper
Once the outline is complete, the next step is writing the paper. A paper can be started at any point in the outline, although a writer should try to follow the flow of the outline as much as possible.
As the paper develops, it might diverge from the original outline. Don’t panic. It may be that the act of writing these ideas out has spawned new ideas that simply need to be added to the outline. On the other hand, moving away from the outline can also mean that the paper has lost it’s focus. A good method for checking for this a retro-outline, which is an outline created from the paper once it is written (partially or entirely). This method is quite useful before handing in any paper, regardless if there was an initial outline. If it is difficult to create a retro-outline that makes sense and is clearly organized, then the paper needs revision. The retro-outline can help by showing where the organization has broken down.
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