Why and How to Create a Useful Outline Summary

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Why and How to Create a Useful Outline


This resource describes why outlines are useful, what types of outlines exist, suggestions for developing effective outlines, and how outlines can be used as an invention strategy for writing.

Contributors:Elyssa Tardiff, Allen Brizee
Last Edited: 2010-04-17 05:26:08

Why create an outline? There are many reasons; but in general, it may be helpful to create an outline when you want to show the hierarchical relationship or logical ordering of information. For research papers, an outline may help you keep track of large amounts of information. For creative writing, an outline may help organize the various plot threads and help keep track of character traits. Many people find that organizing an oral report or presentation in outline form helps them speak more effectively in front of a crowd. Below are the primary reasons for creating an outline.

  • Aids in the process of writing

  • Helps you organize your ideas

  • Presents your material in a logical form

  • Shows the relationships among ideas in your writing

  • Constructs an ordered overview of your writing

  • Defines boundaries and groups

How do I create an outline?

  • Determine the purpose of your paper.

  • Determine the audience you are writing for.

  • Develop the thesis of your paper.


  • Brainstorm: List all the ideas that you want to include in your paper.

  • Organize: Group related ideas together.

  • Order: Arrange material in subsections from general to specific or from abstract to concrete.

  • Label: Create main and sub headings.

Remember: creating an outline before writing your paper will make organizing your thoughts a lot easier. Whether you follow the suggested guidelines is up to you, but making any kind of outline (even just some jotting down some main ideas) will be beneficial to your writing process.
Four Main Components for Effective Outlines


This resource describes why outlines are useful, what types of outlines exist, suggestions for developing effective outlines, and how outlines can be used as an invention strategy for writing.

Contributors:Elyssa Tardiff, Allen Brizee
Last Edited: 2013-03-01 09:20:56

Ideally, you should follow the four suggestions presented here to create an effective outline. When creating a topic outline, follow these two rules for capitalization: For first-level heads, present the information using all upper-case letters; and for secondary and tertiary items, use upper and lower-case letters. The examples are taken from the Sample Outline handout.

Parallelism—How do I accomplish this?

Each heading and subheading should preserve parallel structure. If the first heading is a verb, the second heading should be a verb. Example:



("Choose" and "Prepare" are both verbs. The present tense of the verb is usually the preferred form for an outline.)

Coordination—How do I accomplish this?

All the information contained in Heading 1 should have the same significance as the information contained in Heading 2. The same goes for the subheadings (which should be less significant than the headings). Example:



    1. Note important statistics

    2. Look for interesting classes

(Campus and Web sites visits are equally significant. They are part of the main tasks you would need to do. Finding statistics and classes found on college Web sites are parts of the process involved in carrying out the main heading topics.)

Subordination—How do I accomplish this?

The information in the headings should be more general, while the information in the subheadings should be more specific. Example:


    1. Favorite high school teacher

    2. Grandparent

(A favorite teacher and grandparent are specific examples from the generalized category of influential people in your life.)

Division—How do I accomplish this?

Each heading should be divided into 2 or more parts. Example:


    1. List relevant coursework

    2. List work experience

    3. List volunteer experience

(The heading "Compile Résumé" is divided into 3 parts.)

Technically, there is no limit to the number of subdivisions for your headings; however, if you seem to have a lot, it may be useful to see if some of the parts can be combined.

Alphanumeric Outlines

This is the most common type of outline and usually instantly recognizable to most people. The formatting follows these characters, in this order:

  • Roman Numerals

  • Capitalized Letters

  • Arabic Numerals

  • Lowercase Letters

If the outline needs to subdivide beyond these divisions, use Arabic numerals inside parentheses and then lowercase letters inside parentheses. Select the "Sample Outlines" PDF in the Media Box above to download the sample of this outline.

The sample PDF in the Media Box above is an example of an outline that a student might create before writing an essay. In order to organize her thoughts and make sure that she has not forgotten any key points that she wants to address, she creates the outline as a framework for her essay.

What is the assignment?

Your instructor asks the class to write an expository (explanatory) essay on the typical steps a high school student would follow in order to apply to college.

What is the purpose of this essay?

To explain the process for applying to college

Who is the intended audience for this essay?

High school students intending to apply to college and their parents

What is the essay's thesis statement?

When applying to college, a student follows a certain process which includes choosing the right schools and preparing the application materials.

Full Sentence Outlines

The full sentence outline format is essentially the same as the Alphanumeric outline. The main difference (as the title suggests) is that full sentences are required at each level of the outline. This outline is most often used when preparing a traditional essay. Select the "Sample Outlines" PDF in the Media Box above to download the sample of this outline.

Decimal Outlines

The decimal outline is similar in format to the alphanumeric outline. The added benefit is a system of decimal notation that clearly shows how every level of the outline relates to the larger whole. Select the "Sample Outlines" PDF in the Media Box above to download the sample of this outline.

For our specific outline:

Use Roman numerals and alpha letters. See below. This is an example. You can follow what was done here, but yours should be in more detail. Include quotes, paraphrases, etc. Make sure you CITE your sources. EVERY SOURCE THAT IS ON YOUR WORKS CITED PAGE SHOULD APPEAR IN A PARENTHETICAL CITATION in your outline.


A. Do not use a question, or one word. It should be a full sentence, in which you engage the reader.

B. Background info you feel is important to the overall understanding of the paper. For instance: you could give a very brief background of the Grimm bros. or Andersen, or where the fairy tale first appeared. Just be brief, as you will probably discuss a majority of this later in the paper.

C. Thesis statement and introduction of THE WHY

NOW- this is an example of what I (Mrs. Micale) would do. You DO NOT have to present your research as I am showing you here. This order makes sense to me.

  1. Original Tale

    1. A. In two-three paragraphs, you should summarize the fairy tale, focusing on the points you will revisit later. As you write this out in your outline, you will also use quotes, and paraphrases. That means you parenthetically cite all information.

B.Make sure you add everything you would like in your outline. Your thoughts, your resource info, etc. This should be complete.

III. Modern Tale

A.Same as above

  1. THE WHY

A.Start with the biggest reason WHY this change has/has not occurred. Review the research for the WHY, and then make connections to the tales. This section will take about 3 pages to thoroughly explain

B. If you have different WHYs- make sure they are somehow connected. Use the next best Why here. End with the least important WHY.

V. Conclusion:

A. Make final assumptions. DO NOT RESTATE THE THESIS, but discuss the idea of the thesis statement. How was it proven in this paper? Make a strong statement about your thesis and your ideas. REALLY STATE IT! Then, leave the reader wondering, or questioning, or wanting more.

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