Developing An Outline For An Essay

An outline is:

  • A logical, general description
  • A schematic summary
  • An organizational pattern
  • A visual and conceptual design of your writing

An outline reflects logical thinking and clear classification. It is NOT merely a list of points.




  • Helps you organize your ideas
  • Presents your material in a logical form
  • Shows the relationships among ideas in your writing
  • Constructs an ordered overview of your writing
  • Defines boundaries and groups


Before you begin:

  • Determine the purpose of your paper.
  • Determine the audience you are writing for.
  • Develop the thesis of your paper.


  • Brainstorm : List all the ideas that you want to include in your paper.
  • Organize : Group related ideas together.
  • Order : Arrange material in subsections from general to specific or from abstract to concrete.
  • Label : Create main and sub headings.


An outline has a balanced structure based on the following principles:

  • Parallelism
  • Coordination
  • Subordination
  • Division


Whenever possible, in writing an outline, coordinate heads should be expressed in parallel form. That is, nouns should be made parallel with nouns, verb forms with verb forms, adjectives with adjectives, and so on (e. g. Nouns: computers, programs, users; verbs: to compute, to program, to use; adjectives: home computers, new programs, experienced users). Although parallel structure is desired, logical and clear writing should not be sacrificed simply to maintain parallelism. (For example, there are times when nouns and gerunds at the same level of an outline are acceptable.) Reasonableness and flexibility of form are preferred to rigidity.


In outlining, those items which are of equal significance have comparable numeral or letter designations: an A is equal to a B, a 1 to a 2, an a to a b, etc. Coordinates should be seen as having the same value. Coordination is a principle that enables a writer to maintain a coherent and consistent document.

Correct coordination

A. Word processing programs

B. Database programs

C. Spreadsheet programs

Faulty coordination

  • A. Word processing programs
  • B. Microsoft Word
  • C. Page Maker

Explanation : Word is a type of word processing program and should be treated as a subdivision. Page Maker is a type of desktop publishing program. One way to correct coordination would be:

  • A. Types of programs
  • 1. Word processing
  • 2. Desktop publishing
  • B. Evaluation of programs
  • 1. Word processing
  • a. Word
  • b. Word Perfect
  • 2. Desktop Publishing
  • a. Page Maker
  • b. Quark Express


In order to indicate levels of significance, an outline uses major and minor headings. Thus, you should organize it from general to specific or from abstract to concrete. The more general or abstract the term is, the higher the level or rank in the outline is. This principle allows your material to be ordered in terms of logic and requires a clear articulation of the relationship between component parts used in the outline. Subdivisions of each higher division should always have the same relationship to the whole.

Correct subordination

A. Word processing programs

1. Microsoft Word

2. Word Perfect

B. Desktop publishing programs

1. PageMaker

2. Quark Express

Faulty subordination

A. Word processing programs

1. Word

2. Useful

3. Obsolete

Explanation : There is an A without a B. Also 1, 2, and 3 are not equal; Word is a type of word processing program, and useful and obsolete are qualities. One way to correct this faulty subordination is:

A. Word

1. Positive features

2. Negative features

B. Word Perfect

1. Positive features

2. Negative features


To divide you always need at least two parts. Therefore, there can never be an A without a B, a 1 without a 2, an a without a b, etc. Usually there is more than one way to divide parts; however, when dividing use only one basis of division at each rank, and make the basis of division as sharp as possible.

Correct division

A. Personal computers: hardware

1. Types

2. Cost

3. Maintenance

B. Personal computers: software

Faulty division

A. Computers

1. Mainframe

2. Micro

a. Floppy disk

b. Hard disk

B. Computer uses

1. Institutional

2. Personal


The most important rule for outlining form is to be consistent!

An outline can use topic or sentence structure.

A topic outline uses words or phrases for all entries and uses no punctuation after entries.

Advantages : presents a brief overview of work and is generally easier and faster to write than a sentence outline.

A sentence outline uses complete sentences for all entries and uses correct punctuation.

Advantages : presents a more detailed overview of work including possible topic sentences and is easier and faster for writing the final paper.

An outline can use Roman numerals/letters or decimal form.

Roman Numeral














Sample Outline:

Purpose: To show how programs written for microcomputers relate to the process of writing essays and other papers.

Thesis: Microcomputer programs can have a positive effect on students' writing if the potentials and limitations of the programs are understood.

Audience: Current college and university students.

Microcomputer Programs and the Process of Writing

I. Major Steps in the Writing Process

A. Organizing

B. Writing the first draft

C. Evaluating

D. Revising

II. Writing Programs for the Microcomputer

A. Types of Programs and Their Relationship to the Writing Process

1. Thought

a. Use in organizing

b. Use in revising

2. Word Processors

a. Use in writing the first draft

b. Use in revising

3. Analytical programs: grammar, style, spelling

a. Use in evaluating

b. Use in revising

B. Positive and Negative Aspects of Computer Writing Programs

1. Positive features

a. Less time spent on repetitive or mechanical writing tasks

b. Greater flexibility and versatility in writing process

c. Increased revision strategies

d. Specific learning possibilities

2. Negative features

a. The increased time spent on learning software programs and computers

b. The availability of hardware and software

c. The unrealistic expectations of users

1) A cure-all for writing problems

2) A way to avoid learning correct grammar/syntax/spelling

3) A method to reduce time spent on writing proficiently

4) A simple process to learn and execute

C. Future Possibilities of Computer Programs for Writing

1. Rapid change

2. Improved programs

3. Increased use and availability

4. More realistic assessment of value - critical work

Author: Deborah V. Chandler | Designation: Chief Editor | Date Published: 14, June 2010

A strong outline makes a meaningful original essay. Developing outline for essay writing makes a student write his essay faster and efficiently. It is the major part of the prewriting process of an essay. The time you spend to develop an outline for essay writing can be saved when you actually write the essay. An essay outline is a list of all required information that you plan to include in your essay and it doesn’t necessarily rule out any points that you feel unnecessary at the time of preparing your outline for an essay. Preparing an outline helps you order your information to support the thesis statement most effectively.

Since writing an outline can sometimes be tedious job because this is where you actually start thinking about your essay seriously. Following some basic guideline can be of help here. Your essay combines three major parts, the introduction, the body and the conclusion. Let’s look how you can prepare an outline for your introduction, you need to state the thesis statement and two to three major points. When preparing outline for introduction get the most important points to be included here so that you can generate the curiosity in the reader and get his attention. When you develop outline for the body of your essay, it should have points specified depending on the length and requirements of your essay. You should identify points that support the thesis statement of your essay.

Organizing Points for your Essay

Each point should then be noted to explain when you actually write your essay. You should also find suitable examples that clearly explain your point. You can find more than one example for each point as you can choose the most suitable ones when you are finally writing it. Other than examples you should also collect facts and quotations that prove your major supporting points. You should also plan and outline how to show the point is relevant to your thesis statement. Depending on the requirement of your essay there should be points ranging from three to unlimited and each point should be given all the above mentioned supporting factors like examples and relevance proving statements. The conclusion should also be included in the prewriting process. You conclusion should tie points together to prove your thesis statement and it important not to include any new ideas in the conclusion. Another major pre-writing requirement is the formation of transition statements from one point to another. When you outline your essay, you should spend time to develop transition phrases and it helps to keep your essay in order and well organized.

There are some students who don’t bother to spend time on developing an outline for essays and start writing right away. Here are few benefits of writing an outline for your essays. The most important benefit is that an outline helps you organize your thoughts and develop the essay from it, rather than start writing out of the blue. Once you develop an outline for your essay, you will be able to identify gaps in your research and supporting points and you get enough time to fix them. By developing a strong outline you are actually taking the stress away because you know what you are doing when sit to write the essay. It would always be beneficial to present your outline to professors so that they can make sure you are in the right track and can suggest you changes which would make your essays outstanding.

Often students find it difficult to start the outline writing process. You can start by gathering all the information you have collected on the essay through your research and sort the information you find beneficial. Next step could be a working thesis statement and selecting points that support it. Make sure you have covered all the major parts of the essay in your outline as introduction, body and conclusion before you actually start writing the essay.

Further References:
Developing Essay Outline
General Essay Outline



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