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Creating an Outline

One type of assignment you may encounter in college is creating an outline.  Your teacher might instruct you to outline a reading to show you understand the concepts it introduces, or you may be asked to turn in an outline as a preliminary step to writing a paper.  Even if you are not required to do an outline for any of your classes, you should learn how.  Outlines are powerful tools that can help you to succeed in all kinds of coursework.

Outlines are hierarchical representations of the ideas in an essay, book chapter, or other piece of writing.  They typically follow a very systematic format (shown below) and display the main points of an argument in a clear, concise manner.  This makes the organization of the work much easier to see.  Because outlines reveal both a piece of writing’s important ideas and its structure, they are useful tools in both reading and writing.


Outline Format

The standard form for an outline involves grouping similar ideas together and presenting them hierarchically.  Start with a title that conveys your topic.  Then, include headings for each main idea and subheadings for your various supporting ideas, following the template given below:

TITLE

I.  MAIN IDEA 1

A. Supporting idea that explains or provides evidence for I

1. Supporting idea that explains or provides evidence for A

a. Supporting idea that explains or provides evidence for 1

b. Supporting idea that explains or provides evidence for 1

2. Supporting idea that explains or provides evidence for A

a. Supporting idea that explains or provides evidence for 2

b. Supporting idea that explains or provides evidence for 2

B. Supporting idea that explains or provides evidence for I

II. MAIN IDEA 2

A. Supporting idea that explains or provides evidence for I

B. Supporting idea that explains or provides evidence for I

1. Supporting idea that explains or provides evidence for B

a. Supporting idea that explains or provides evidence for 1

b. Supporting idea that explains or provides evidence for 1

2. Supporting idea that explains or provides evidence for B

a. Supporting idea that explains or provides evidence for 2

b. Supporting idea that explains or provides evidence for 2

As you can see, Roman numerals are used to list the main ideas, while uppercase letters, Arabic numerals, and lowercase letters are used for the supporting ideas. Additionally, indents help to show the levels of structure: those closest to the left margin represent the higher levels (the most significant points) while those that are more indented represent the lower levels (the smaller points).

This template can be adjusted or expanded to suit your needs.  Here, only two main ideas are shown, but you can include as many as you need.  Each main idea should include at least two supporting ideas (the As and Bs shown here), but you could also use more than two.  Additionally, though three levels of supporting ideas are shown here, sometimes a concept may not need all of them.  For example, ideas I-B and II-A do not have any supporting ideas in the template, while I-A and II-B include two levels of supporting ideas.  If you need additional levels of supporting ideas, you can use lowercase letters in parentheses and then Arabic numerals in parentheses to get up to six hierarchical levels.  Include as many or as few of them as you need.

Each heading or subheading could be presented as a short phrase (as shown above) or in complete sentences (this is known as a sentence outline).  Other variations on this template also exist, so always be sure to follow your teacher’s instructions about formatting if you are assigned an outline for one of your classes!


Characteristics of Effective Outlines

In addition to following the format given above, there are four other principles you should keep in mind when creating your outline.

#1: Parallelism

Each heading and subheading should be worded using a parallel structure. If the first main idea is a presented as a verb, the second should also be presented as a verb. If the first is a noun, the second should also be a noun.

#2 Coordination

Main idea 1 should have the same significance as Main idea 2, and so on. The same goes for each level of supporting ideas.  Additionally, the supporting ideas should be less significant than the main ideas.

#3 Subordination

The information in the headings should be more general, while the information in the subheadings should be more specific.  Each main idea will thus represent a general point that you’d like to make, while the supporting ideas will be specific examples, descriptions, or explanations of the main idea.

#4 Division

Each heading should be divided into 2 or more subheadings.  Or, in other words, each main idea should have at least two supporting ideas.


Outlines for Reading and Writing

Creating an outline can help you to better understand any articles, chapters, or books you need to read for class.  The process forces you to think about what the author’s important points are, giving you greater insight into the main ideas.  Laying out those points in outline form can teach you about the ways authors organize their thoughts (making you a better writer!) and can help you to see places where their argument might have holes or contradictions.  Once your outline is done, it can serve as a reference as you prepare for in-class discussions, discussion board posts, or other classwork.  Though some teachers may ask you to outline a reading for homework, you should get in the habit of doing so even when it is not required.

Creating an outline is also a very important step in the writing process.  After you do any necessary readings or research and then brainstorm to generate some initial ideas, you should organize those ideas in outline form.  This will help you to present your ideas in a logical order and make it much easier to write a clear, understandable paper.  Additionally, you can use the outline as a skeleton that you then flesh out to create your paper.  Even though outlining might seem like an extra step, it will usually save you time in the long run, and you’ll end up with a better paper!  For more information about to use an outline to write a paper, read this helpful guide.

 

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