How to write an outline

An outline presents a picture of the main ideas and the subsidiary ideas of a subject. Some typical uses of outlining might be an essay, a term paper, a book review, or a speech. For any of these, an outline will show a basic overview and important details. It's a good idea to make an outline for yourself even if it isn't required by your professor, as the process can help put your ideas in order.

Some professors will have specific requirements, like requiring the outline to be in sentence form or have a "Discussion" section. A student’s first responsibility, of course, is to follow the requirements of the particular assignment. What follows illustrates only the basics of outlining.

Basic outline form

The main ideas take Roman numerals (I, II, ...) and should be in all-caps. Sub-points under each main idea take capital letters (A, B, ...) and are indented. Sub-points under the capital letters, if any, take Arabic numerals (1, 2, ...) and are further indented. Sub-points under the numerals, if any, take lowercase letters (a, b, ...) and are even further indented.

    1. Subsidiary idea or supporting idea to I
    2. Subsidiary idea or supporting idea to I
      1. Subsidiary idea to B
      2. Subsidiary idea to B
        1. Subsidiary idea to 2
        2. Subsidiary idea to 2
    1. Subsidiary or supporting idea to II
    2. Subsidiary idea to II
    3. Subsidiary idea to II

It is up to the writer to decide on how many main ideas and supporting ideas adequately describe the subject. However, traditional form dictates that if there is a I in the outline, there has to be a II; if there is an A, there has to be a B; and so forth.

Outline example

Suppose you are outlining a speech about gerrymandering, and these are some of the ideas you feel should be included: voter discrimination, "majority-minority" districts, the history of the term, and several Supreme Court cases.

To put these ideas into outline form, decide first on the main encompassing ideas. These might be: I. History of the term, II. Redistricting process, III. Racial aspects, IV. Current events.

Next, decide where the rest of the important ideas fit in. Are they part of the redistricting process, or do they belong under racial aspects? The complete outline might look like this:

Gerrymandering in the U.S.

    1. Responsibility of state legislatures
    2. Census data
    3. Preclearance
    4. Partisan approaches
    1. Gomillion v. Lightfoot (1960)
    2. Civil rights
      1. Voter discrimination
      2. Voting Rights Act (1965)
      3. Majority-minority districts
    1. Effects of gerrymandering in 2012 and 2016 elections
    2. Gill v. Whitford Supreme Court Case

It is only possible to make an outline if you have familiarity with the subject. As you do research, you may find it necessary to add, subtract or change the position of various ideas. If you change your outline, ensure that logical relationship among ideas is preserved.

Helpful resources

To gain an initial familiarity with your topic, look it up in Gale Virtual Reference Library (a.k.a. "Academic Wikipedia"), a collection of entries from specialized encyclopedias. GVRL provides topic overviews, many of which are organized with an outline themselves.

Further reading

Tardiff, E., and Brizee, A. (2013). Developing an outline. In Purdue OWL. Look at all three sections. The third includes an example.

Lester, J.D., and Lester, Jr., J.D. (2010). Writing research papers: A complete guide (13th ed.). New York: Longman. Includes several models, including for a general-purpose academic paper. Check it out from the Stacks LB2369 .L4 2010.

Turabian, K.L. (2013). A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Request John Jay's copy from the Reference Desk (call number LB2369 .T8 2013).

Created by J. Dunham, 2003. Revised by R. Davis, Oct. 2017.