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How do I create an outline?


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L Skinner

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What is an outline?

An outline is a plan, a kind of map of your essay. It lists the points you will make, in the order you will make them.

Before you create an outline, you have to think about what you want to say, what points you will make, and in what order.  This means you have to organize your ideas and put them in a sequence that will make sense to the reader.

Types of outlines

  • There are two types of outlines
    • A topic outline lists words or phrases
    • A sentence outline lists complete sentences  (a complete sentence is one that has a subject, a verb, and a predicate)
  • Outlines can be arranged in two styles
    • Alphanumeric -- this means letters and numbers are used
    • Decimal -- this means decimals are used (1.0, 1.1, 1.2, 2.0....)


Topic outline

The topic outline lists information as words or phrases. The words and phrases represent the topics you will cover.


Thesis: College athletes should receive a salary, because they are entertainers who also bring money and recognition to their schools.

I. Overview of college athletics
II. Why a salary?
    A. Entertainment
    B. Money
    C. School recognition

Sentence outline

A sentence outline lists full sentences. A full sentence has a subject, a verb, and a predicate. Each sentence in a sentence outline is the first sentence of a paragraph as it will appear in the paper, and it shows exactly what you will say.


Thesis: College athletes should receive a salary, because they are entertainers who also bring money and recognition to their schools.

I. College athletics, also called college sports, are competitive sports played at the university level.
II. While college athletes may not be professional, they do provide advantages to their institutions.
    A. College athletes provide the same level of entertainment as professional athletes.
    B. College athletes help bring tuition  money to their schools.
    C. College athletes bring recognition to their schools, making them known across the country.


Creating an outline

To create an outline:

  1. Place your thesis statement at the top.
  2. List the major points that support your thesis. Label them in Roman Numerals (I, II, III, etc.).
  3. List supporting ideas or arguments for each major point. Label them in capital letters (A, B, C, etc.).
  4. If applicable, continue to sub-divide each supporting idea until your outline is fully developed. Label them 1, 2, 3, etc., and then a, b, c, etc.

Example of a full topic outline

Thesis: Federal regulations need to foster laws that will help protect wetlands, restore those that have been destroyed, and take measures to improve the damage from overdevelopment.

I. Nature's ecosystem

   A. Loss of wetlands nationally

   B. Loss of wetlands in Illinois

      1. More flooding and poorer water quality

      2. Lost ability to prevent floods, clean water and store water

II. Dramatic floods

   A. Cost in dollars and lives

      1. 13 deaths between 1988 and 1998

      2. Cost of $39 million per year

   B. Great Midwestern Flood of 1993

      1. Lost wetlands in IL

      2. Devastation in some states

   C. Flood Prevention

      1. Plants and Soils

      2. Floodplain overflow

III. Wetland laws

   A. Inadequately informed legislators

      1. Watersheds

      2. Interconnections in natural water systems

   B. Water purification

IV. Need to save wetlands

   A. New federal definition

   B. Re-education about interconnectedness

      1. Ecology at every grade level

      2. Education for politicians and developers

      3. Choices in schools and people's lives

Example taken from The Bedford Guide for College Writers (9th ed).

Video: How to structure an outline


College Writing Skills with Readings (9th ed.), by John Langan | A Writer's Reference (6th ed.), by Diana Hacker | Writing for Success Handbook | Writing Matters: A Handbook for Writing and Research, by Rebecca Moore Howard |