An outline is a formal system used to develop a framework for thinking about what the eventual contents and organization of your paper should be. An outline helps you predict the overall structure and flow of a paper.
Writing papers in college requires you to come up with sophisticated, complex, and sometimes very creative ways of structuring your ideas. Taking the time to draft an outline can help you see whether your ideas connect to each other, what order of ideas works best, where gaps in your thinking may exist, or whether you have sufficient evidence to support each of your points.
A good outline is important because:
You will be much less likely to get writer's block because an outline will show where you're going and what the next step is.
It will help you stay organized and focused throughout the writing process and helps ensure a proper coherence [flow of ideas] in your final paper. However, the outline should be viewed as a guide, not a straitjacket.
A clear, detailed outline ensures that you always have something to help re-calibrate your writing should you feel yourself drifting into subject areas unrelated to the larger research problem.
The outline can be key to staying motivated. You can put together an outline when you're excited about the project and everything is clicking; making an outline is never as overwhelming as sitting down and beginning to write a twenty-page paper without any sense of where it is going.
An outline helps you organize multiple ideas about a topic. Most research problems can be analyzed in any number of inter-related ways; an outline can help you sort out which modes of analysis are most appropriate or ensure the most robust findings.
How to Structure and Organize Your Paper. Odegaard Writing & Research Center. University of Washington.
I. General Approaches
There are two general approaches you can take when writing an outline for your paper:
The topic outline consists of short phrases. This approach is useful when you are dealing with a number of different issues that could be arranged in a variety of different ways in your paper. Due to short phrases having more content than using simple sentences, they create better content from which to build your paper.
The sentence outline is done in full sentences. This approach is useful when your paper focuses on complex issues in detail. The sentence outline is also useful because sentences themselves have many of the details in them and it allows you to include those details in the sentences instead of having to create an outline of many short phrases that goes on page after page.
II. Steps to Making the Outline
A strong outline details each topic and subtopic in your paper, organizing these points so that they build your argument toward an evidence-based conclusion. Writing an outline will also help you focus on the task at hand and avoid unnecessary tangents, logical fallacies, and underdeveloped paragraphs.
Identify the research problem. The research problem is the focal point from which the rest of the outline flows. Try to sum up the point of your paper in one sentence or phrase. It also can be key to deciding what the title of your paper should be.
Identify the main categories. What main points will you analyze? The introduction describes all of your main points, the rest of your paper can be spent developing those points.
Create the first category. What is the first point you want to cover? If the paper centers around a complicated term, a definition can be a good place to start. For a paper about a particular theory, giving the general background on the theory can be a good place to begin.
Create subcategories. After you have the main point, create points under it that provide support for the main point. The number of categories that you use depends on the amount of information that you are trying to cover; there is no right or wrong number to use.
Once you have developed the basic outline of the paper, organize the contents to match the standard format of a research paper as described in this guide.
III. Things to Consider When Writing an Outline
There is no rule dictating which approach is best. Choose either a topic outline or a sentence outline based on which one you believe will work best for you. However, once you begin developing an outline, it's helpful to stick to only one approach.
Both topic and sentence outlines use Roman and Arabic numerals along with capital and small letters of the alphabet arranged in a consistent and rigid sequence. A rigid format should be used especially if you are required to hand in your outline.
Although the format of an outline is rigid, it shouldn't make you inflexible about how to write your paper. Often when you start investigating a research problem [i.e., reviewing the research literature], especially if you are unfamiliar with the topic, you should anticipate the likelihood your analysis could go in different directions. If your paper changes focus, or you need to add new sections, then feel free to reorganize the outline.
If appropriate, organize the main points of your outline in chronological order. In papers where you need to trace the history or chronology of events or issues, it is important to arrange your outline in the same manner, knowing that it's easier to re-arrange things now than when you've almost finished your paper.
For a standard research paper of 15-20 pages, your outline should be no more than four pages in length. It may be helpful as you are developing your outline to also jot down a tentative list of references.
Four Main Components for Effective Outlines. The Writing Lab and The OWL. Purdue University; How to Make an Outline. Psychology Writing Center. University of Washington; Organization: Informal Outlines. The Reading/Writing Center. Hunter College; Organization: Standard Outline Form. The Reading/Writing Center. Hunter College; Outlining. Department of English Writing Guide. George Mason University; Plotnic, Jerry. Organizing an Essay. University College Writing Centre. University of Toronto; Reverse Outline. The Writing Center. University of North Carolina; Reverse Outlines: A Writer's Technique for Examining Organization. The Writer’s Handbook. Writing Center. University of Wisconsin, Madison; Using Outlines. Writing Tutorial Services, Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning. Indiana University; Writing: Considering Structure and Organization. Institute for Writing Rhetoric. Dartmouth College.
A Disorganized Outline Means a Disorganized Paper!
If, in writing your paper, it begins to diverge from your outline, this is very likely a sign that you've lost your focus. How do you know whether to change the paper to fit the outline, or, that you need to reconsider the outline so that fits the paper? A good way to check yourself is to use what you have written to recreate the outline. This is an effective strategy for assessing the organization of your paper. If the resulting outline says what you want it to say and it is in an order that is easy to follow, then the organization of your paper has been successful. If you discover that it's difficult to create an outline from what you have written, then you likely need to revise your paper.