Formal Outline Guidelines

Donna Reiss
Active Learning Online


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 either.

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:

Lastname page

Student-class-information

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 point

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.
    1. 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 sentences).
      • Capitalize only the first word of each entry (except for proper nouns).
      • Use parallel structure within each subdivision.
    2. 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.
    3. 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