What is an Outline?

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  • Originally Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Revised By: A. Joseph
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 27 November 2018
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An outline is an organizational tool used by writers to gather thoughts so they can be clearly laid out in an essay or book. Many writers believe that creating an outline is the key to effective writing and that it makes the writing process more efficient and focused. By using this tool for a piece of writing, the author ensures that all of the elements are presented in a logical, clear order and that they flow well, drawing the reader to a logical conclusion. An outline also can help identify and eliminate potential areas of weakness or a lack of focus in a paper.


When constructing outlines, most authors start with notes taken while the paper was being researched. There are various ways to organize notes and quotations, but many writers find it useful to take notes on index cards, writing the specific subject in the upper corner, so that research can be organized by type. For example, a student who is writing a paper on economic systems could tag note cards with “Capitalism” if they pertain to capitalist systems, which can make it easy to gather together all of the notes on a particular subject.


Getting Started

The notes can help keep the point of the paper focused, whether it is an argument, a comparison or an expository paper. The point of the paper will be covered in the introduction, which is the first section of the outline. The topics that will be covered in each section are identified — usually without elaboration, which will be added after the work is written. In the previous example of a paper on economic systems, the student might have an “Introduction” heading, which could be followed by “Communism,” “Socialism,” “Capitalism” and so on, followed by “Conclusion.” This would make a rudimentary outline, although it could be suitable for a short paper or an organized student.

From Less Specific to More Specific

In most cases, each heading is divided into subheadings for more specific ideas. Each subheading also can be divided into another level of more specific parts, with each successive level being further divided as necessary. The use of these headings and subheadings allowed the narrative flow of each section can be determined before the author begins.

Organizational Tool

This tool also helps the writer organize his or her thoughts, throwing out weaker ideas and developing new ones. The outline might get quite detailed and lengthy, especially for a paper on a complex issues or a full-length book. When the author sits down to write, however, the process will be already mapped out, which could make the writing go more quickly.


The generally accepted format is that the main headings are preceded by Roman numerals, and the subheadings under them are preceded by capital letters. The next two levels under the subheadings, when used, are preceded by Arabic numerals and lowercase letters. It is considered unnecessary to have only one subheading under a heading, or only one subsection under a subheading, so each level should contain at least two sections. The higher levels typically contain only a few words at most, and each level under them gets more specific and therefore usually include longer descriptions.

Useful to Know

Although an outline is rarely required for a piece of writing, it can be extremely helpful. Papers that are written with the assistance of an outline are often of a higher quality because of the greater level of organization. For this reason, outlines are considered to be among the tools that a writer should know how to use.


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Discuss this Article

Post 5

@ GlassAxe- Your idea for creating a mind map seems like it would work well for writing fiction or longer works. When I am writing fiction I do not like to create outlines because I feel like they are too rigid, cornering me into a predetermined plot.

With the web or flashcard technique, you have the freedom to shuffle story elements around. You can also add or subtract story elements with ease.

This seems like a good way to organize a story, but still have flexibility. I think I might try to use this instead of just writing or using a rigid outline next time I write.

Post 4

When I begin the writing process for long papers or essays, I like to use a technique called mind mapping. This helps me choose a direction I want to take my paper in before I begin research, and it helps me generate ideas on original subject matter.

I start my mind map with my topic in the center. I draw more circles with related ideas. Next, I draw lines to link these circles together in a logical order.

If you do not like the circle method, you can use flashcards with your ideas written on them and arrange them in a hierarchy.

These methods help me distinguish what ideas are worth researching and what ideas will throw me into a tangent, causing my writing to be less effective.

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