Outlines can be used to plan a project or to check whether a project
is organized clearly and logically. The purpose of an informal preliminary
(also called rough) outline is to help writers organize their thinking
and information they have gathered. Some writers revise their outlines
while they draft. Some writers revise their outlines after they have finished
revising their papers.
A formal outline may guide or result from the final stages of
a paper. In academic settings, formal outlines clarify the focus and organization
as well as the scope of a paper. If you cannot outline your own paper,
your readers might not be able to recognize the order of your thinking
Consider which methods of organization are most suitable to your
topic, for example, you might use a combination of order of importance,
causes and effects, problems and solutions, comparison-contrast, and classification.
After you have drafted your outline, review it for logical organization
and for accurate reflection of the subject.
Consult a college handbook for detailed explanations and examples
of preliminary, informal, and formal outlines. The following tips are
supplementary reminders for composing a Formal Outline using Modern
Language Association (MLA) standards, which requires adherence to
a conventional system of numbering.
Arrange your information logically and then
arrange major and minor subdivisions of thought.
Number and letter your information according
to the conventions of scholarship, spacing indented items to line
up under the previous items. Remember that every subdivision must
have at least two parts (you can't divide a pie into one part). Typical
is the following arrangement:
Title of Paper
Thesis statement: One or two complete sentences go here.
I. Major point 1 supporting thesis
A. Second level point supporting major point 1
B. Another second level point supporting major point 1
1. Third level point supporting second level point
2. Another third level point supporting second level point
a. Fourth level point supporting third level point
b. Another fourth level point supporting third level
3. Another third level point supporting second level point
C. Another second level point supporting major point 1
II. Major point 2 supporting thesis
[repeat pattern above with as many levels and points as needed]
The topic headings should reflect the actual
content of your notes and ideas.
Do not use the terms "introduction" or
"conclusion"; instead, use "Significance of rehabilitation"
or "History of lotteries" or "Patterns of abuse."
Do not use "example" or "case study";
instead, use "Norfolk jail's program" or "Colonial
lotteries" or "the Newport News case."
Use one of the three major types of outline consistently.
Topic outline: In this most common and
often preferred type of outline, each entry is a noun,
noun phrase, or noun substitute (no verb phrases, no complete
Sentence outline: Some scholars prefer
the completeness of a sentence outline in which each entry is
a complete sentence. However, sentence outlines are more difficult
to revise if you decide to reorganize.
Paragraph outline: Used primarily for long
papers, the paragraph outline has a paragraph for every entry
except for headings.
h. After you have drafted your outline, review it for logical
organization and for accurate reflection of the subject.
The following example illustrates a formal topic outline with
page format set up according to MLA guidelines (see Guidelines
for Academic Papers for details).
for educational purposes only
developed and copyright ©May 2001 by D. Reiss
modified and copyright ©8 March 2003 by D. Reiss