Creating an outline, either a formal or an informal one, helps you organize your research and create a logical flow to your writing. Sometimes an outline helps you see problems in the original plan, and you can eliminate them before you spend time writing.

If you prefer writing papers without an outline, try an experiment. Create an outline after a paper is finished to see if your organization is clear and logical. This exercise may convince you that outlining is helpful.

Informal outlines

An informal outline can be a simple list of main points. You can refine it by following each main point with notes about the evidence or examples that support it. You are grouping your notes. A simple outline like this is often all the organization you need. It is especially valuable for timed writings or essay exams. Thinking through your approach before you begin—and jotting down your thoughts—will help you avoid rambling and moving away from the assignment.

Formal outlines

Sometimes you may want to prepare a more formal outline. You may even be asked to submit an outline with a writing assignment. Here are a few tips for creating outlines.

Use Roman numerals (I., II., V.) for main topics in your outline. Beneath each of the main topics, use capital letters (A., B., C.) to list the information supporting each of the main topics. Then list each subtopic using Arabic numbers (1., 2., 3.). If you have small details that support the subtopics, use lowercase letters (a., b., c.). Most word‐processing programs have automatic outline features that will indent and align topics and subtopics for you.

1. I.







Make outline topics and subtopics parallel in structure. For example, if you use a complete sentence for the first topic, use complete sentences for all subsequent topics. If you use one word or a phrase for the first subtopic, use one word or a phrase for the following ones.

Watch the logic of your outline. The main topics generally indicate the basic structure of your essay. The second level of your outline (A., B., C., and so on) covers the major ideas that contribute to and support the larger units. The next level of subtopics is for narrower points related to these ideas. Don't include irrelevant ideas in your outline. Make sure each element logically fits under its heading.

Each topic and subtopic should have at least one related topic or subtopic. That is, you cannot have an I. without an II., or an A. without a B., and so on. Topics and subtopics are divisions of your subject, so you can't divide something into one part. If your outline shows single topics or subtopics, reevaluate to see whether you are misplacing or poorly stating your headings. Maybe the information should be worked into an existing larger category or divided into two topics or subtopics.

Sentence outlines and topic outlines

In a sentence outline, all elements are stated in complete sentences. In a topic outline, the elements may be presented as single words or as phrases. Study the following examples.

Sentence outline

  1. Many high school classes do not prepare students for large university classes.

  • Nontracked high school classes don't challenge more capable students to achieve at their highest level.

  1. Less competition leads some students to try to “get by” rather than excel.

  2. Inflated grading of good students in nontracked classes can lead to false expectations.

  • High school classes are not designed to encourage individual responsibility, which is                  required in large university classes.
    1. Required attendance in high school may lead students to react to less rigid attendance requirements by cutting classes at the college level.
    2. High school teachers assign daily homework and reading assignments, whereas university professors generally make long‐term assignments.
    3. High school teachers frequently spend more time with individual students than do professors in large universities.

   2.  Some high schools offer programs to help students prepare for university classes.

Topic outline

  1. Lack of preparation of high school students for university classes

  • Nontracked high school classes

  1. Less competition

  2. Inflated grades

  • Less individual responsibility in high school classes

  1. Required attendance

  2. Homework and daily assignments

  3. Individual attention from teachers

   2.  Programs to prepare high school students for university classes