Chapter 3: Developing an Outline

Writing > Developing an Outline

This resource describes why outlines are useful, what types of outlines exist, suggestions for developing effective outlines, and how outlines can be used as an invention strategy for writing.

Why create an outline? There are many reasons; but in general, it may be helpful to create an outline when you want to show the hierarchical relationship or logical ordering of information. For research papers, an outline may help you keep track of large amounts of information. For creative writing, an outline may help organize the various plot threads and help keep track of character traits. Many people find that organizing an oral report or presentation in outline form helps them speak more effectively in front of a crowd. Below are the primary reasons for creating an outline.

Why should I create an outline?

  • Aids in the process of writing

  • Helps you organize your ideas

  • Presents your material in a logical form

  • Shows the relationships among ideas in your writing

  • Constructs an ordered overview of your writing

  • Defines boundaries and groups

How do I create an outline?

  • Determine the purpose of your paper.

  • Determine the audience you are writing for.

  • Develop the thesis of your paper.


  • Brainstorm: List all the ideas that you want to include in your paper.

  • Organize: Group related ideas together.

  • Order: Arrange material in subsections from general to specific or from abstract to concrete.

  • Label: Create main and sub headings.

Remember: creating an outline before writing your paper will make organizing your thoughts a lot easier. Whether you follow the suggested guidelines is up to you, but making any kind of outline (even just some jotting down some main ideas) will be beneficial to your writing process.

Ideally, you should follow the following four suggestions to create an effective outline. The examples are taken from the Sample Outline handout.

Parallelism - How do I accomplish this?

Each heading and subheading should preserve parallel structure. If the first heading is a verb, the second heading should be a verb. Example:

  1. Choose Desired Colleges

  2. Prepare Application

("Choose" and "Prepare" are both verbs. The present tense of the verb is usually the preferred form for an outline)

Coordination - How do I accomplish this?

All the information contained in Heading 1 should have the same significance as the information contained in Heading 2. The same goes for the subheadings (which should be less significant than the headings). Example:

  1. Visit and evaluate college campuses

  2. Visit and evaluate college websites

    • Note important statistics

    • Look for interesting classes

(Campus and website visits are equally significant. They are part of the main tasks you would need to do. Finding statistics and classes found on college websites are parts of the process involved in carrying out the main heading topics.)

Subordination - How do I accomplish this?

The information in the headings should be more general, while the information in the subheadings should be more specific. Example:

  1. Describe an influential person in your life

    • Favorite high school teacher

    • Grandparent

(A favorite teacher and grandparent are specific examples from the generalized category of influential people in your life.)

Division - How do I accomplish this?

Each heading should be divided into 2 or more parts. Example:

  1. Compile resume

    • List relevant coursework

    • List work experience

    • List volunteer experience

(The heading "Compile resume" is divided into 3 parts.)

Technically, there is no limit to the number of subdivisions for your headings; however, if you seem to have a lot, it may be useful to see if some of the parts can be combined.

What follows is an example of an Essay Outline:


Title: always write a title – even when you are not required to. Argumentative essays have informative titles.


Lead-in statement: designed to attract your reader’s attention and gain their interest, it is more broad than your topic.

Narrowing down: the next one or two sentences gradually narrow down a broad topic to your thesis statement.

Thesis statement: one or two sentences that state the main topic and the keywords of your topic sentences.


Topic sentence for paragraph #__of__: this is the main idea of the paragraph. It must connect with the thesis statement. Keywords from this sentence should appear in the thesis statement.

Supporting sentence #__ of __: supporting sentences provide details, examples, proof, quotes, connections, and supporting ideas to reinforce the paragraph’s topic sentence. There are usually several supporting sentences in a paragraph.

Optional transition or concluding sentence: this is a sentence that connects the preceding paragraph and this one together. Alternatively, it may simply conclude this paragraph.


Restatement of the thesis: it is ONE statement. You cannot re-write the thesis here the way you did it before, you need to rephrase it respecting the same order of keywords.

Opening up sentences: these must be different than those used in the introduction. Do not introduce a new topic.

Final sentence: final comment, advice, food for thought/clincher / wrap-up statement (consequences and insights) … (write a strong, effective message that the reader will remember!)

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Attribution information for this page: Elyssa Tardiff & Allen Brizee (OWL Purdue)Page keywords: