How to Write an Outline: Top 11 Steps to Follow

Are you wondering how to write an outline? Read on for a comprehensive, step-by-step guide on how to write a great outline for your next writing project.

When writing any substantial paper or book, even if it is as simple as a five-paragraph essay, you can benefit from starting with an outline. An outline provides a framework for your work, showing you where to put all of your points. It also provides boundaries for your writing, preventing you from going off-topic. A well-written and planned outline will make writing your paper easier. Once you have the outline ready, you need to fill in the details and connect the ideas using your sentences, and you will soon have a well-made paper.

If you have never written an outline, you may need some extra guidance to learn how to do it. However, once you learn how to outline, you will find that outlines are the best tools to guide your writing, giving you an effective way to organize your thoughts into something you can use to write your paper. So, if you are wondering how to write an outline, here is a step-by-step guide to getting you started.

Step 1: Define Your Topic

The first step to writing an outline is defining your topic. First, you need to know what you are writing and why. Your clearly defined topic will dictate the information you will use in the outline. Sometimes your teacher or the assignment will give you a starting point, like a general topic. Brainstorm about this topic to develop a central idea that will guide the rest of your writing and your overall outline.

Make sure you choose a topic with enough information to create a work as long as you need it to be. Some topics are too general, while others are too specific. Spend time researching and brainstorming to ensure you have a solid, engaging, and workable topic.

Step 2: Write a Thesis Statement

How to Write an Outline: Write a thesis statement

Your thesis statement is different from your topic. It defines the purpose of your paper, which, in turn, will determine the course of your outline. The thesis statement is the argument you will pursue, the entertainment you wish to deliver, or the information you wish to explore.

Your thesis statement should identify the outline’s purpose, such as to inform, entertain, or argue a point; make this clear in the wording of the thesis statement. Your paper’s readers must know from the beginning what they are reading and why. Writing a clear thesis statement is vital before you start writing the outline. Effective outlines have a clear purpose, which comes from the thesis statement. 

Step 3: Identify Your Target Audience

At this point, you still are not writing the outline quite yet. Before you build a detailed outline, you must know who you are writing for. Defining your audience helps you know what should be part of your paper. For example, if you are writing a dissertation that you will argue in front of a team of experts in your field, you may not need to give simple details about your topic. However, if you are writing on the same topic for a classroom of students, you will need those simple details to ensure they understand what you are saying.

Similarly, if you are writing a paper or preparing a speech for a work environment, you can assume that the audience knows some things about your topic, but not everything. Your target audience is evident if you are writing a school paper. It may be less so if you are writing a paper you’re considering publishing. Determine your target audience’s needs, and let those needs guide you as you build your outline.

Step 4: Conduct Preliminary Research 

Now you are ready to start your research. Before writing your outline, you need to know details about your topic. Spend some time jotting down notes and tapping into your personal or professional experience on your topic. If you are unfamiliar with your main topic, you can start with a Google search on it, but don’t limit your research to the web. Instead, keep detailed notes that you tie to each resource as you research because you will need to tap into those notes when you write the outline and then move on to the research paper and the bibliography page.

Remember, your outline is the final step before you start writing your actual paper. You can’t write the outline until you’ve done some research, so get your thoughts together.

Step 5: Organize Your Ideas

Once you have done some research, start finalizing the main points in your mind. A helpful outline will have about three to five main points, with sub-points underneath those. See if your research seems to fall into clear categories that you can use to divide up your outline.

One easy way to organize ideas is with a notecard system. If you write your research notes on notecards, you can organize those notecards based on their topic. Soon you will see a basic outline coming together in your mind. If you didn’t use a notecard, grab a sheet of paper and create a map of your ideas. Then, connect them to the central idea by drawing lines. Soon you will see how your points and subpoints will come together to make an interesting paper.

Step 6: Choose a Template or Structure

There are several types of outlines you can use for your project. If your teacher doesn’t specify which type, you must choose one. The alphanumeric outline is a popular choice. It has main points set apart as Roman numerals (I, II, III, IV, etc.), followed by Arabic numerals (1, 2, 3, 4)< capital letters (A, B, C, D), and lowercase letters (a, b, c, d). Each subpoint under the main point is indented slightly. This is the most common type of outline. Here is how that will look:

  • I. Start each main point with a verb.
    • A. Use action verbs if you can.
    • .B. Avoid using passive voice
      • 1. Passive voice is less direct than active voice.
      • 2. Change to active voice whenever possible.

Decimal outlines use numbers and decimals to show the main points and subpoints. Each point has a brief phrase, and subpoints are shown through an indented bullet point underneath the previous point. Here is how this might look:

  • 1.0 – Start each main point with a verb
    • 1.1 – Use action verbs if you can
    • 1.2 – Avoid Using Passive Voice
      • 1.2.1 – Passive voice is less direct than active voice
      • 1.2.2 – Change to active voice whenever possible

You can also choose between a full-sentence outline or a topic outline. A full sentence outline uses complete sentences for each point. A topic outline uses short phrases or single words for each point. The above examples are complete sentence outlines. This is how a topic outline might look:

  • I. Mammals
    • A. Characteristics
      • 1. Live births
      • 2. Feed milk
      • 3. Hair or fur
    • B. Exceptions
      • 1. Platypus
      • 2. Aquatic mammals

A full-sentence outline is more detailed and will provide a better framework for an in-depth paper. However, a topic outline can work well for shorter research papers, especially a student’s first paper.

Step 7: Outline Your Introduction

The first point in your outline is going to be your introduction. This is the part of your paper where you introduce your thesis or topic sentence. It must provide background and context to tell the reader why the rest of the paper is essential. This can be where you define key terms or outline how a research study is performed. It will end with the thesis or purpose statement, which you may not write in the outline, but you should set the stage as you complete it.

Ensure your introduction has some hook to draw the audience into your paper. If possible, have this be a point or subpoint so you do not forget to write it into the paper.

Step 8: Write Your Main Points

To continue your outline, you will write your main points. Each one is an argument or proof for your thesis statement. Your main points can also be called significant points. They need to be clear and usually require a complete sentence. The main points should relate to or build on each other; they all need to relate to your topic sentence. For example, if you are writing a five-paragraph essay, each of your main points will be one of the paragraphs.

The first point will be your topic and thesis statement, along with the statistics and facts that show why your topic is essential. The next three are your supporting arguments, while the final point is the concluding thought. Other papers may follow a similar format but have more paragraphs per the main point. However, the five-paragraph essay structure is a common one that requires an essay outline s consider learning how to build this type of essay.

Step 9: Fill in the Subpoints

Once you know your main points, you are ready to add supporting points underneath those with minor points or subpoints. These points cannot stand independently, but they support the main point they sit under. Each main point should have at least two subpoints. If you add subpoints under subpoints, you must have at least two for every layer you add. No outline point can have just one subpoint underneath it. Each level of the outline supports the point above it. For example, your capital letter points add more information and detail to your roman numeral points.

In contrast, your Arabic numeral points add more detail to the capital letter points above them. You can have many or a few subpoints. The length depends on the desired length of your finished project and the amount of information you have. When you are done filling in your subpoints, take a look at what you have written. Does anyone’s point have too many subpoints compared to the others? If so, it might be possible to split that point into two separate points. 

Step 10: Outline Your Conclusion 

Your conclusion is the final outline point on your outline. It must tie in all of the paper’s claims and main points. It will also revisit the thesis statement and show how the claims fit. If any additional steps are warranted based on the research or information provided, you can add this to the conclusion. Even though the conclusion will restate your main points and thesis, you can add something new or exciting to this final point. Remember, you don’t want to be redundant, so find a way to logically connect the conclusion to the rest of the paper.

Step 11: Proofread Your First Draft

Now that you have your outline started, you are ready to revise it a little. Often, additional research will show additional subpoints or ideas you want to add, or you may find that you have additional redundancy to eliminate. Read over it to see if you missed any main ideas or arguments. Next, edit your outline to make it clean and proper so you can turn it in with your paper. You can skip this part if you only use the outline for your needs.

Adjusting your outline should be done before you start writing the paper. Then, once you have an outline you like, you can write your paper by simply filling in the details, adding some quotes, and connecting your ideas.

When editing for grammar, we also recommend taking the time to improve the readability score of a piece of writing before publishing or submitting.