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 determine 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:
How to Structure and Organize Your Paper. Odegaard Writing & Research Center. University of Washington; Why and How to Create a Useful Outline. The Writing Lab and The OWL. Purdue University; Lietzau, Kathleen. Creating Outlines. Writing Center, University of Richmond.
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 needed to build a paper and it allows you to include those details in the sentences instead of having to create an outline of 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.
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
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 it fits the paper? A good way to check your progress 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.