Outline of Outlines: Where to Start

I can remember how, even as early as elementary school, I was given worksheets that were meant to teach how to organize information into an outline. For me at least, this always seemed pointless. The writing assignment that went with the outline was always so simple, that it seemed like a complete waste of time to go through this first step. This is a common misconception about outlining, and I had it until I began to outline on my own. I’ve always had a passion for writing stories, and as I got older those stories became more and more complex. Eventually, I became so overwhelmed by my ideas that, for a time, I stopped writing entirely. When I did get back into it, it was only after mapping out all the different possibilities and deciding which way I wanted the story to go. That experience helped me to see how valuable outlining can be and I gradually began to use it when writing assignments for school. When you have a lot of information to fit into an essay, or you don’t quite know how you’re going to organize your thoughts, working it out in an outline first can save you a lot of time.

Outlines can be broken up into two major categories, formal and informal. In this post, I will be giving you an overview of what these outlines are and how you can use them to improve your writing.

Formal Outline Types

When a professor asks for an outline as part of an assignment, a formal outline is more than likely the kind they’ll be looking for. Formal outlines are neatly organized and show clearly the different sections of your paper and the main points you will include in each section. There are two types of formal outlines: Alphanumeric and Full Sentence. They both use the same basic format, but alphanumeric outlines list points as phrases or keywords, while full sentence outlines are just what their name describes, an outline where each point is written as a single complete sentence.

Alphanumeric Outline


I. Section

               A. Main Point

                             1. Sub point

                                           a. Additional Information

Full Sentence Outline


I. Outlines come in different forms that can be used in different ways to improve your writing.

A. Formal outlines can be used to give you or others a general sense of how your                     paper will be organized.

1.Full sentence Outlines are one type of formal outline.

When you are outlining informally, you are outlining for you own benefit, and do not necessarily need to create an outline with a specific type of structure. These outlines can come in many forms, you can follow these examples, or create one of your own!

Web Outline

The web outline starts with the bubble-outlinethesis statement, or topic of the paper, in the center and then branches out with main ideas and sub points. This method is especially helpful when brainstorming.

 Post it Note Outline

For a post-it note outline, create sections on poster board, or just label areas in a room, to correspond with the main points of your paper. Then, write sub-points on post-it notes as they come to mind and place them into the corresponding section. This method can really help if you have trouble organizing your ideas.


You can also try outlining by creating lists or using bullet points. And remember, since informal outlining is something you are doing for yourself, it can be as simple or complex as it needs to be, as long as it works for you!

Don’t forget- if you are struggling with outlining your research paper, the Writing Center is always glad to help!

Written by Eylina S.



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