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.



Toxic Topics


Throughout college we do a lot of writing—like A LOT. On the plus side, professors give us a pretty wide range of genres to work in and with so many different professors to study under, we get a healthy dose of variety. Not only is this awesome practice for reading and writing in multiple genres for the rest of our lives (assuming we survive college) but it keeps us from going “Crazy” writing the same thing over and over!

Below are a few genres you may find yourself writing in and topics to look out for when writing. While these ideas are termed “toxic,” keep in mind that you are free as a bird to write about whatever you please. You is kind, you is smart, you is important! However, it’s important to remember that you are writing for an audience that is not just you.

Don’t turn off your reader!

These are not topics to absolutely avoid, but be wary and pay attention to how these topics can be addressed skillfully and successfully.

Research Papers:

  • Very broad topics
    1. “The history of Rome”
      • Good luck! That’s thousands and thousands of years to cover in a semester or even a unit.
      • What about… “The road to Rome?” This way, we’re specifically looking at how the birth of Rome came to be.
  • Ambiguous topics
    1. “The Effects of World War II”
      • This could mean a lot of things—positive effects or negative effects? Economic or cultural effects? Long term effects? Not only is this broad but it could mean so many different things!
      • Maybe try… “The negative effects of World War II on the family unit.” Or… “The economic effects of World War II” Perhaps… “The effects of World War II on America’s workforce”
  • Extremely Spiritual topics
    1. “Is God real?”
      • While a topic like this may have personal meaning, it will make for a difficult research project! Research writing depends on evidence and conducted research; it would be nearly impossible to research a spiritual entity’s existence.
      • Instead… “The evolution of Christ: Examining ancient to modern cultures.”

Persuasive & Argumentative Papers:

  • Very broad topics
    1. “Women Are Mistreated”
      • While this could be a good starting point, where would the argument even start or end? There are too many years, situations, cultures, movements etc., to work through. Plus, yes, they are mistreated but so are men, children, and even animals—there’s no argument.
      • Go further with… “The objectification of women in the media is negatively influencing the romantic interactions between teens.”
  • Stereotyping
    1. “People raised in wealthy families are snobbish.”
    2. “Men are manipulators.”
    3. “Women love to talk.”
      • Let’s refer back to, “Don’t turn off your reader!” The last thing we want is to offend or alienate our readers.
      • Solid arguments with evidence can’t be formed on stereotypes.
  • Newer concepts/ideas/theories
    1. Be wary of choosing topics that are fresh in the field you’re working in. While newer topics are intriguing, there may be little research done yet, making the argument weak.

Memoirs & Narratives:

  • Extremely personal topics
    1. While we may be comfortable writing about it, the reader may be uncomfortable reading it—especially if the connection between reader and writer has not yet been built.
    2. Simply, be aware of the topic: its implications, how detailed it is, how it might make the reader feel etc. Ultimately, it is 100% up to you, and it won’t hurt your grade whatever you decide.
  • Too shallow topics
    1. “One time I lost $50 and it sucked.”
      • Okay, let’s get a little more personal than that! There is definitely a happy-medium. Memoirs and narratives are meant to be reflective, show personality, lessons learned etc.
      • Instead, “One time my best friend stole $50 from me because they really needed it and I learned how to forgive and talk things out when I’m angry”
      • Maybe even stick with losing $50! Just tweak it…“One time I lost $50 and in the end, I learned that money isn’t the most important thing in life”

Don’t forget—if you’re struggling with a topic idea, the Writing Center is happy to help!


written by Amy S.


Source Evaluation

Source evaluation is like being the make-it or break-it judge at a talent show. You get to decide who makes the final cut and can shine in your paper, and who will be left out in the rain. However, you want your judgment to be a thoughtful gesture. Like many other aspects of writing, source evaluation is a process. If you’re unfamiliar with what makes a source valuable or not, here are a few simple steps to follow:

  1. Make sure you are using relevant sources
  2. Make sure you are using credible sources
  3. Make sure there is enough information for a paper

There aren’t very many steps, but these three encompass a lot of information.

First, you want to make sure that you can find sources that relate to your topic. You might be interested in a history of plant etymology or gladiatorial battles in Ancient Rome, but would either one be useful in a paper about underage drinking? Even similar topics might not work. If you want to write about teenager’s stealing their parents’ liquor, then finding sources on the number of fake ID’s in clubs might not be the best option because they are not directly relevant to your main subject. Meanwhile, a source that includes interviews of teenagers who were caught stealing would be a much better fit for the assignment.

The second step is to make sure your sources come from credible publications or websites. Everyone has had that one teacher (or more likely several of them) who has said to never use Wikipedia. This is because websites like Wikipedia, or any website that ends with .com or .org, can be changed by anyone and do not have to be held up to rigorous standards of accuracy. One way to check if a website is credible is to check the authors and see if it ends with .gov or .edu, which means it is a government or educational website. It’s important to check the authors because a website might look credible, but could actually be owned by a biased organization. Googling Martin Luther King Jr. brings up thousands of results, and one of the top ones is by an organization called Stormfront. Stormfront is part of the KKK and would clearly be a biased source. Otherwise it is always a good idea to stick to academic sources, which means they are reviewed by other knowledgeable or certified people in the field. Books are a good choice, and so are academic journals from databases like EBSCOhost and JSTOR.

Finally, make sure there is enough information for the assignment. A subject might be really fascinating, like snail birthrates (or whatever you’re into), but there might only be one or two credible sources for it. Would that be enough to write a 10-15 page paper? Usually it’s not. On the other hand, you might select a topic that is way too broad. If you choose to write a paper about climate change, there are literally thousands of aspects that you could write about all related to that subject. So then the challenge is to narrow it down to a manageable chunk, which is a great time to visit the Writing Center for help! It is easier to write a thorough piece on the views towards climate change in Jakarta than it is to try to write about the entire subject.

Hopefully this helps you choose the topic and resources for many papers in your academic career!


written by Heather D.


Topics & how-to pick ’em

It is not uncommon for a professor to give a writing assignment with few restrictions on a topic.  Choosing a topic is sometimes the hardest part of writing a paper because the options can seem endless and overwhelming! However, sufficient topic choice for a paper or speech can be detrimental to writing or performing well in a class.  Some of the worst blunders a student can make when selecting a topic are as follows: not choosing a topic of interest, choosing a topic with zero background knowledge, or choosing a topic that is inappropriate or does not apply to a particular assignment. So, to make choosing a topic less stressful, let’s break each of these categories down to help evaluate how to choose intriguing and fitting topics!

  1. Choose a topic you are interested in.

Keeping your interests or your field of study in mind is the best piece of advice I can give for choosing a topic.  Choosing a topic that you have little to no interest in will make researching that topic much more difficult.  If you enjoy your topic, you will enjoy doing the research.  Being interested in your topic will also ensure you experience a type of learning that will stick in your brain longer.

  1. Choose a topic you have some background knowledge on.

 It is a lot harder to take a side on an issue or to narrow down a topic if you know nothing about it.  Having previous knowledge on a subject can also be beneficial for the researching process because finding relevant information on a topic is much easier when you have an idea what you’re searching for.  Another thing to keep in mind is to consider choosing a topic you have already written or given a speech about.

DISCLAIMER: This does not mean to re-use an old paper or speech for a new class.  What this does mean is that it is okay to choose to repeat a topic AS LONG AS the method of approaching the subject and the content of the paper or speech is fresh.  For example, if you are interested in animal hunting but have already written a paper for one class about the history of hunting animals and how it evolved, you could choose to write about the same topic again, but take it in a new direction.  The new paper may cover a more specific part of hunting, like sport hunting or big game hunting, answering a moral question.  Should animal hunting be considered a sport? or Should sport hunting be illegal?  Or you may choose to do another research option, like how societal views of hunting animals change from one culture to another.  There are endless possibilities for how you can write about a single subject. Just be sure you are conducting novel research and writing about the subject in a new and innovative way for each assignment.

  1. Always choose a topic that is appropriate for the class and the assignment.

The class, the audience, and the assignment should always be taken into account when choosing a topic.  Your topic should always be relevant and interesting, while still applicable to the class.  If you are in a communication class, choose a topic relating to communication. Remember that you can even choose a topic that has been covered in class if you found it particularly interesting; just be sure to expand on what was covered in class, rather than restating information.  Most important of all, be creative with your topic and have fun!

written by Jaclyn H.


Resources We Recommend: Academic Sources Edition

Here are some helpful tips to find academic sources on campus:

Helmke Library offers many resources to help students find reference material and academic sources for conducting research and writing papers.    These resources can be found by typing “library.ipfw.edu” into the URL bar.  Off to the right side of the screen, there are 5 colored boxes. Each of those boxes represent a different service that the library provides.



  • ASK A LIBRARIAN” allows students to chat with or make an appointment with a librarian to get information about finding sources.


  • IUCAT CATALOG” allows students to view IPFW Helmke Library’s entire book catalog online.


  • DATABASES A-Z” allows students to view all the databases that Helmke Library offers to students for free. Although Academic Search Premier and INSPIRE seem to be the most popularly used, there are hundreds of other databases that may be of assistance when researching certain topics. Most of the databases allow students to type in keywords in order to search for articles relating to general research they are trying to find.


  • TOPIC GUIDES”, allows students to search on a more narrowed down scale for material. This link lets students select their major or area of study. Then, a list of credible books, journals, or databases pops up that will enable students to find more information specific to their field of study.  Students can then either request suggested books or view them online.  They can also click on the recommended databases to search for research.


  • DOCUMENT DELIVERY” allows students to request books or journals that cannot be viewed online. This link also permits students to check the status of requested materials, so they know when it can be picked up from the library.  Most databases also have a ‘request document’ option for journals that cannot be viewed online.  By requesting a document, the library can send a copy of a desired article through e-mail to a student, usually within a couple of days.


The most important thing to keep in mind when looking for articles to use in a paper is to make sure that the author is credible.  Be sure that the writer has the experience or credentials that gives them appropriate knowledge to write the article.



To check citation style:


Purdue OWL is the most updated resource that gives students the ability to check or learn how to cite source material in the proper format.  Most commonly on Purdue OWL, the Writing Center uses the MLA style guide, the APA style guide, and the Chicago style manual.  Each link under those sections explains how to fully cite sources in the bibliography, as well as how to form in-text citations.  It also provides examples to help students understand the layout and format for citations in different circumstances.



written by Jaclyn H.