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How to Make an Outline

How to Make an Outline for an Academic Paper

An important part of any writing project, whether it's a part of high school coursework or your graduate thesis, is making an outline. Thinking through your ideas and getting them organized on paper before you start writing will make the whole process easier for you and also help make your paper clear and easy to read.

An outline can be defined as a general idea or plan of the subject matter or material that is to be presented in any paper (academic, research, or creative writing) or speech. It shows the significance of the various topics, the relationship between them, and the relative importance of each one.

If you've ever written a research paper, then you probably already know the benefits of a good outline. It serves many purposes, with the main one being to organize and arrange information as part of the writing process.

It is also useful at different stages of constructing a paper and can be used to help narrow down a topic, assist in generating ideas, and even check for unity and coherence.

By writing an outline, one can comprehend the importance or relevance of the material and the connections that might have not been there when the paper was first written or thought of. It can also aid you in understanding or identifying the information that is not really helpful or relevant to the paper or even is a duplication of something already covered. Therefore, these issues can be sorted out by removing unwanted parts.

Writing an outline before the actual paper helps to keep you focused on the overall structure and progressing momentum. It may be as simple as jotting down some main ideas, but is immensely beneficial and adds incredible value to your academic writing.

Reasons for Creating an Outline

What is an outline? Why should one create it? What is the use of it? There are many answers to such questions.

It may be useful to show the logical order or hierarchical relationship of the information. An outline helps in keeping track of all the information, thus making the overall job of writing the academic paper easier. With respect to creative writing, it helps in organizing various plots and character traits. When it comes to an oral paper or a speech, it rehashes the topics, so that nothing is missed or forgotten to discuss.

Some significant reason for writing an outline is that it helps in the process of writing, organizing ideas, presenting the information in a logical way, shows the relationship between the ideas in the paper, defines boundaries, and constructs an ordered summary or conclusion of the paper.

Narrow down a topic

Often, when it comes to constructing outlines, people only think of them as the ways of organizing lots of information, but they can also be used to help further define a topic in the same way that a brainstorm list or a cluster web is used. Simply take your broad idea and attach subtopics to it. Then add more details to those subtopics as you would when constructing an ordinary outline for a paper. By doing this, you can easily work your way from a broad topic to a well-defined one.

Make sense of your ideas

This second use is the most popular one. When preparing a paper, there may be several ideas you'd like to discuss or elaborate on but are not sure of how to organize all of them. Creating an outline will help you quickly sort out your ideas and provide a format and structure for your writing. After you've organized a preliminary skeleton, it can then be used to help guide you through your paper. It helps to make sure that you explain each point and identify any holes or gaps in your argument.

Check for unity and coherence

Even if you don't need a formal outline, you too can benefit from it by using it to check your work. So instead of basing the paper on the outline, the issue is reversed, and the outline is based on the paper. That way, you would list the subtopics and points as you find them in your writing, not how you planned them to be. By doing this, you can check to see if your paper is really written in a logical and coherent manner, as well as to see if the content is unified. This is also a great way to find useless or 'filler' paragraphs in your writing that likewise need to be altered or deleted.

Present the contents of your paper to the reader

Once you've concluded your paper and are ready for publication, you can also use an outline to assist you in creating a table of contents for your paper. Though the two differ, the table of contents is usually constructed from parts of your outline as it can easily help you lay out all the contents of a paper. Though once you create a table of contents page(s), you must adhere to the formatting guidelines for it. Those are usually different from the formatting guidelines of an outline.

Types of Outlines

When preparing an outline for organizational and guiding purposes, there are two main types that are usually constructed: the sentence outline and the topic one. When creating an outline, one should be consistent and not mix up the types. That implies that you should either write all headings in sentences or phrases, but never both.

The topic outline is usually the more popular one and simply involves listing the various subtopics that will be discussed in your paper. They are then followed by more detailed points about each one, which is usually limited to a couple of words or a short phrase.

The sentence outline, on the other hand, is obviously more detailed. It is also sometimes called an alphanumeric outline since it uses numerals and letters to indicate the transitioning points. Instead of short phrases, it provides a full sentence or two to explain each point. That will take more time to construct, but it's worth the effort for very long papers that may be complicated or require a lot of specific information that you may not be able to recall off-hand. Similarly, some instructors (in the process of teaching you how to conduct research) may require a sentence outline from you to demonstrate the research that you've gathered thus far. Even without having to be forced to write one up, sentence outlines can be very useful and may save you a lot of "back and forth" when it comes to constructing your first draft.

There is also a decimal outline, which is an expanded version of the alphanumeric one, as it indicates how every stage of the work relates to the larger whole.

Contents of an Outline

An outline is simply a list that summarizes what you're going to say in your paper. It should be structured just like a usual paper, with a heading for the introduction, chapters, body paragraphs, and the conclusion. It might be just a few lines that list your thesis and the topic sentence for each paragraph. A longer one might expand on those ideas and list the quotes, evidence, or arguments you plan to make in each paragraph.

A strong outline has details of all the topics as well as the subtopics in the paper. The skeleton for an academic paper, in general, has the following parts.


The purpose of the introduction is to provide the readers with a context and prepare them for the paper's argument or discussion. The introduction should not be very elaborate and should begin with a discussion of the specific topic with a limited context that is enough to prepare the readers for the purpose/thesis statement.

Thesis Statement

The thesis or the purpose statement comes at the end of the introduction. The introduction already has the readers prepared for it. It should clearly state the purpose of the paper in a very concise way. The thesis statement should always be specific and should be a brief, complete, and grammatically correct sentence. The rest of the paper follows the thesis statement and supports it.


In this section, you might include either a review charting the current state of knowledge on the topic or a historical overview. The main purpose of this section is to validate the paper with respect to the current research.

Major and Minor Points

Major points are the main topics that move the paper forward. Each major point should be relevant to the main argument of the paper. Minor points here are the subtopics discussed within the major points. A minor point may help in describing the nuances in the major points but have no individual significance.


The conclusion should reinstate the paper's argument and give way to a larger discussion of the same. The conclusion focuses on projecting the thesis statement with respect to the current research, future implications, and steps for future researchers.

Creating an Outline

Before creating an outline, one should have a clear picture of the academic paper. Its purpose and the audience to which it will be presented should be determined well in advance. The next important aspect that is required is the thesis of the paper. A thesis plays an important role as it defines the central argument.


Start your outline by doing the research. Carefully reading all of your primary and secondary source materials will give you a clear idea of what you want to discuss and might also help you decide how you want to structure your argument. While you're reading, be on the lookout for quotes or other evidence from your sources that you can use.


Once you're done the research, start jotting down ideas for your paper. Make a list of themes, ideas, or quotes from your research that interest you and look for patterns that could suggest a thesis for your paper. For example, if you're writing about Heart of Darkness and Lord of the Flies, you might notice that both books frequently use the imagery of light and darkness. From there, you could make a list of all the quotes from each book that reference light and dark imagery and also start pulling together quotes from secondary sources.

The working outline can be reviewed and changed when there are new ideas or new material to be added. It is always a good practice to keep copies of the old outlines for reference. The final version is the one that enhances the consistency of the work.

Organize your thoughts

Now's the time to decide how you want to organize your paper. Start with your thesis statement, then decide what information you'll need to prove it. Look back on your brainstorming list and decide what ideas and quotes are going to be necessary and what you can leave out.

There's no "right way" to shape your argument. Every paper will be different, and the organization will depend on the topic you're writing about. For example, if you're comparing two books, you can write first about one and then about the other, or you can mix examples from both books throughout your paper. For a history paper on a specific time period, you might choose to organize your paper around different aspects of that period, such as politics, social issues, or the role of women.

Write an outline

Once you're organized, you can start your outline. The headings will depend on how your paper is organized, but in general, you want to have a heading for every concept or topic you're going to cover. For a longer paper, this might be chapters, while for a short paper, you might list individual paragraphs.

Related ideas should be grouped together. The material should then be arranged in sub-sections and follow an order. For example, one can either follow general to the specific order or abstract to concrete. Chronological order of the events also has a good impact sometimes. At other times, a spatial arrangement might work best. In the general-to-specific order, one begins with a general idea later supported by specific examples. The labels of the main headings and subheadings are created in correlation with ideas. The sub-sections should be divided on the basis of either a system of numbers or letters followed by a period.

Under each heading, list the main idea for that section along with the supporting evidence you're going to use, and don't forget to include the introduction and conclusion in your outline. If you take the time now to make your skeleton as detailed as you can, then the actual writing will be a lot easier down the road.

Formatting your outline

Most people are very familiar with the outline. You probably envision a list that includes some Roman numerals, letters, etc. But there is a formal way to go about setting up your outline even if everyone doesn't follow it all the time.

  1. If you're creating an outline to guide you through your paper, or to help organize your thoughts, it's best to write out your thesis statement at the top of the page. This will help you identify exactly what key points you should be addressing in your paper.
  2. Come up with subtopics or categories based on your thesis statement and list them using Roman numerals.
  3. Identify some logical points that would fall under most general categories and indicate them using capital letters.
  4. Start to use Arabic numerals (which refer to the numbers 0-9) to identify more details under the points that were just made.
  5. Use periods after all letters and numbers.

Examples of an Outline

Example #1

Topic: The imagery of light and darkness in "Heart of Darkness and Lord of the Flies."

  1. Introduction
    • Provide background information
      • Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad; originally published in 1899. The novel tells the story of a man's descent into savagery in the African jungle.
      • Lord of the Flies by William Golding; published in 1954. The novel depicts a group of schoolboys who become violent when stranded alone on an island.
    • Thesis
      Both Golding and Conrad use imagery of light and darkness to demonstrate the transformation of their characters from civilized men and boys into savage animals.
  2. Body Paragraph #1 - Light in Lord of the Flies
    • Topic Sentence
      When the boys first land on the island, they are showered in the bright, tropical sunlight.
    • Evidence: Quote p. 16.
  3. Body Paragraph #2 - Light in Heart of Darkness
    • Topic Sentence
      As in Lord of the Flies, the main character in Heart of Darkness initially finds Africa to be full of sunlight.
    • Evidence: Quote p. 115.
  4. Body Paragraph #3 - Darkness in Lord of the Flies
    • Topic Sentence
      Once the boys embrace their greedy and violent inner nature, they move into the forest and become draped in shadows and darkness.
    • Evidence: Quote p. 111.
  5. Body Paragraph #4 - Darkness in Heart of Darkness
    • Topic Sentence
      As Marlow journeys further from civilization and toward the savagery of Kurtz, he plunges into the darkness and shadows of the jungle.
    • Evidence: Quote p. 95
  6. Conclusion
    • Restate the thesis
    • Close with a quote from Heart of Darkness
      • "The mind of man is capable of anything."

Example #2

Thesis: Children who are born as a result of marriage and are raised in a household where the parents are married perform better academically and are more emotionally stable than those that are not.

  1. The general benefits of marriage
    • Financial stability
    • Statistically, couples are better at saving money
  2. Physical health
    • Married couples are less likely to experience certain medical and physical health problems
    • More chances of fidelity may prevent sexually transmitted diseases

*This small sample presented above only provides one major category of 'The general benefits of marriage,' but other categories' would likewise be indicated using subsequent Roman numerals as well. Lastly, if required, even more information can easily be provided under the sub-points by using a lowercase letter to indicate further information.

Do's and Don'ts for Outlines

  • Don't get trapped by your source material.
    Just because you're writing about a novel doesn't mean you need to follow the plot scene by scene, and just because you're writing about history doesn't mean your essay or speech needs to be chronological. Instead, organizing each level of your outline around concepts or themes will make your argument clearer and also make your paper look more professional.
  • Don't be afraid to move things around.
    Your outline isn't set in stone. If you start writing and find that your outline just isn't working, feel free to add, delete, or move parts around to make it fit your design.
  • Make your outline as detailed as you can.
    The more work you put into the outline, the less time you'll have to spend writing.

Here's a tip from professional writers! Don't skip the outline just because you don't have to hand it in! Most teachers won't ask to see your outline, but that doesn't mean it isn't still a necessary step in the writing process. It will greatly help you in the creation of your outstanding paper.

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