How to Make an Outline

How to Make an Outline

Nov 02, 2012
An important part of any writing project, whether it's 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.

What's in an outline?

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

How to write an outline


Start your outline by doing the research. Carefully reading all of your primary and secondary source materials will help give you a clear idea of what you want to discuss in your paper 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 might want to use in your paper.


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 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.

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 the 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.
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 outline as detailed as you can, then the actually writing will be a lot easier down the road.

Example outline

Imagery of light and darkness in Heart of Darkness and Lord of the Flies

  • Introduction.
    • Provide background information
      • Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad; originally published 1899. The novel tells the story of a man's decent into savagery in the African jungle.
      • Lord of the Flies by William Golding; published in 1954. The novel depicts the 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.
  • Body Paragraph #1 - Light in Lord of the Flies
    • Topic Sentence: When the boys first land on the island, they are showered in bright, tropical sunlight.
    • Evidence: Quote p. 16.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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
  • Conclusion
    • Restate thesis
    • Close with quote from Heart of Darkness, p. 113.

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 needs to be chronological. Organizing your outline instead 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 better.
  • 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.
  • 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.
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