Using An Outline to Write A Paper

The main difference between outlining a reading and outlining your own paper is the source of the ideas.  When you outline something someone else wrote, you are trying to represent their ideas and structure.  When outlining your own paper, you will need to focus on your own ideas and how best to organize them.  Depending on the type of writing assignment, you might want to incorporate concepts and quotations from various other sources, but your interpretation of those ideas is still the most important element. Creating an outline based on the principles outlined above can help you to put your ideas in a logical order, so your paper will have a stronger, more effective argument.


Step 1: Figure out your main points and create the headings for your outline

Once you have come up with some ideas for your paper (through free-writing or through any of the techniques described in the Reading for Writing section of this website, you will need to organize those ideas.  The first step is to decide what your main points will be.  Use those main ideas as the headings for your outline.  Remember to start with your introduction as the first heading, add headings for each main idea in your argument, and finish with a conclusion.

For example, an outline for a five-paragraph essay on why I love my dog might have the following headings:


II. BODY PARAGRAPH 1: My Dog is a Good Companion

III. BODY PARAGRAPH 2: My Dog is Well-Behaved

IV. BODY PARAGRAPH 3: My Dog is Cute


Since the topic is why I love my dog, each of the body paragraphs will present one reason why I love my dog.  Always make sure your main ideas directly relate to your topic!

You can order your main ideas based on either the strength of your argument (i.e. put your most convincing point first) or on some other clear organizing principle.  A narrative on how you became a student at SPS would most likely follow a chronological approach, for example.  Don’t worry if you are not completely satisfied with the ordering; you can always change it later.  This is particularly easy if you are creating your outline in a word-processing program on a computer (which I would highly recommend): you can drag the items into different positions to test out different orderings and see which makes the most sense.


Step 2: Add your supporting ideas

The next step is to fill in supporting ideas for each of your main ideas.  Give any necessary explanations, descriptions, evidence, or examples to convince the reader that you are making a good point.  If you are using quotes, add those here.  Remember to include the appropriate citation based on whichever format your teacher requires; having that information in your outline will speed things up when you write your paper (since you won’t have to go hunting for the bibliographic information) and make it easier to avoid plagiarism.

To continue the example above, I might fill in part II of the outline as follows:

II. Body Paragraph 1: My Dog is a Good Companion

A. My dog is fun

1. My dog likes to play

2. My dog likes to go on walks

B. My dog is friendly

1. My dog likes to cuddle

2. My dog likes people

This section is focused on the idea that I love my dog because he is a good companion.  The two first-level subheadings are general reasons why he is a good companion: he is fun (A) and he is friendly (B).  Each of those ideas is then further explained through examples.  My dog is fun because he like to play and go on walks.  I know my dog is friendly since he enjoys cuddling and like people.  I could add even more detail by including specific games my dog likes to play, behaviors that tell me he like to go on walks, and so.  The more detail you add, the easier it will be to write you paper later on!

In terms of how to organize your subheadings, again try to present these supporting ideas in a logical order.  Group similar ideas together, move from general concepts to more specific examples or explanations, and make sure each supporting idea directly relates to the heading or subheading under which it falls.

When you have finished adding supporting ideas, read through the outline to see if there is anywhere you think your argument has holes or could be further fleshed out.  Make sure that your ideas are in the most logical order.  Don’t be afraid to test out different orderings to see what makes the most sense!


Step 3: Turn your headings and subheadings into complete sentences

Once you have added as much detail as possible and your outline is complete, save it as a new file on your computer (or type it into the computer).  If your main and supporting ideas in the outline are not already in sentence form, turn each item into one or more complete sentences. This will help you to see more clearly idea where to divide up your paragraphs.  When writing a short to medium length paper, each heading (or main idea) will typically correspond to one paragraph.  For longer papers, each heading may be a section and your first (or even second) level of subheading will eventually become your paragraphs.  See how many sentences fall under each heading to get a rough idea of what correspondence makes the most sense for your paper.


Step 4: Construct your paragraphs

Next, start at the beginning of your outline and go through point by point.  Delete the outline formatting (indentations and letter/numeral designations) and start to put your sentences together into paragraphs.  You may need to add transition phrases or even extra sentences to make sure your prose flows naturally.  You might also find that even though your ideas seemed to make sense in the outline, you need to add still more details here or change the order of your ideas for everything to fully make sense.  You may even find that you have too many ideas or that some ideas are not really all that relevant and need to be cut.  That is perfectly normal.  The outline is a plan to help you get organized, but you always have the flexibility to change it to fit the needs of your assignment.

Remember to start a new paragraph whenever you introduce a new idea (or when a paragraph has gotten very long and the reader needs a break).  Again, you will probably want to add transition phrases or sentences to connect each paragraph to what came before and to help the reader follow your argument.

Once you have finished turning your outline into paragraphs, you should have a decent first draft of your paper.  Now you just need to proofread and revise (and repeat) until you are ready to turn in your assignment!


Skip to toolbar