Online Writing Lab

Roane State Community College

Creating Outlines

Outlines can be a helpful tool when you're trying to organize your thoughts for an essay or research paper.  After you've decided on a topic and done some brainstorming to generate ideas, think about the best way to group your ideas together.

Ask yourself:  What is my main point or purpose in writing this paper?  The answer will help you form a thesis statement. 

Ask yourself:  Can I list at least 3 larger concepts that will support my main idea?  These larger topics will make up the body paragraph sections of your outline.

Ask yourself:  How can I organize the rest of my ideas so that they fit within these larger categories?  These ideas will make up the sub-topics of your outline. 

Ask yourself:  What else do I want or need to say about this topic to fulfill my assignment?  These additions should be placed on your outline, as well.

A Note About Formatting:  Outlines usually follow a specific format using parallelism, Roman Numerals, upper case letters, and sometimes numbers to indicate ideas with different levels of importance.  Unless your instructor is planning to collect and grade your outline based on proper formatting, try not to get too hung up on making sure that you're formatting each section properly.  The important thing to remember is that the outline is meant to be a helpful organizational tool--compose your outline in such a way that it will be helpful to you!

Example of a Formal Outline

  1. Introduction/Tentative Thesis
  2. Main Topic 1
    1. Support 1
    2. Evidence 1
    3. Example 1
    4. Support 1
  3. Main Topic 2
    1. Support 2
    2. Evidence 2
  4. Main Topic 3
    1. Evidence 3
    2. Example 1
    3. Support 1
  5. Conclusion
    1. Topic 1
    2. Topic 2
    3. Topic 3

Reverse Outline

A simpler, more informal type of outline can be helpful after you've written your rough draft.  If you find that your essays are often disorganized or you tend to struggle with transitions, reverse outlines might be a useful tool for you.

What is a reverse outline?  Reverse outlines are informal lists that are created after a rough draft has been written, to help you visually see what you're discussing in your essay

How do I create one?  You can make a formal outline if you want, but often the best type of reverse outline simply involves jotting down notes in the margins of your draft.  Follow these steps: 

  1. Read your introduction paragraph.  Underline your thesis statement.
  2. Read each body paragraph slowly.  Each time you finish a paragraph, jot down the main idea that the paragraph discussed, in the margins.
  3. Read each body paragraph again and jot down notes about the supporting information that was discussed in each paragraph, in the margins.
  4. Read your conclusion paragraph.  Check to make sure that it refers back to your thesis statement, but uses different words to do so.

In order to use this reverse outline as a revision tool, you'll need to take a look at the main ideas that have been presented.  Ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Do each of these body paragraph topics support my thesis statement?  (Consider removing anything that wanders away from your topic)
  2. Have I discussed the same idea or topic in multiple places throughout the draft?  (Group similar ideas together!)
  3. Have I used clear transitions to show how each paragraph relates to the surrounding paragraphs?  (If not, add connecting words or transitional phrases)
  4. Have I covered everything that I wanted to say about my topic?  (Look for holes in your information, then add paragraphs or sentences to fill them)
  5. Have I tried to cover too much information or rambled on about a particular idea for a long time?  (Narrow your topic and/or remove unnecessary words)