How to Write an Outline

There are five steps in the writing process: (1) Prewriting; (2) Outlining; (3) Drafting; (4) Revising; and (5) Editing. Outlining is the second step of the writing process. An outline is a general plan of the material that an author will present in a speech or a paper. The outline shows the order of the various topics, the relative importance of each, and the relationship between the various parts.
When writing, an author must organize his or her ideas in an order that makes sense. Order refers to the choice of what to present first, second, third, and so on in the writing. The order must relate to the purpose of the particular work.
For an essay question on a test or a brief oral presentation, one may prepare an informal outline consisting of the key ideas in the order of presentation. However, longer works often require the preparation of a more formal outline. A formal outline is a detailed guide that shows how all the supporting ideas in a work relate to one other. There are two types of formal outlines: the topic outline and the sentence outline.
When formatting of both types of outlines:

  • Place the introduction and thesis statement at the beginning, under Roman numeral I;
  • Use Roman numerals (II, III, IV, V, etc.) to identify main points that develop the thesis statement;
  • Use capital letters (A, B, C, D, etc.) to divide the main points into parts;
  • Use Arabic numerals (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, etc.) to subdivide any “A”s, “B”s, or “C”s into smaller parts; and
  • End with the final Roman numeral expressing the idea for the conclusion.

For example,

  1. Subdivide topics by a system of numbers and letters, followed by a period.
  2. Outline

  3. Ensure that each heading and subheading has at least two parts.
  4. Refrain from using headings for parts of the paper of speech such as, “Introduction” and “Conclusion.”
  5. Maintain consistency. Avoid mixing up the two types of outlines. Use either whole sentences of brief phrases, but not both.

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