Creating an Outline

By: Elizabeth Roberson


Rarely do students choose to add optional writing to an already lengthy list of writing requirements. Whether you’re preparing to write a lab report or trying to put together your dissertation, however, you should consider first putting your ideas down in an outline.  Outlines may seem somewhat dated/unnecessary, but they can be extremely helpful in both sorting through your ideas  as you begin to write and saving you time when you’re ready to begin your first draft (Johnson-Sheehan, 2010).  They offer a great deal of flexibility when making changes to your document’s organization and adding/deleting information (Burnett, 2001).  That flexibility can save you a tremendous amount of time.  Outlines can be created either on paper or online and list both the major and minor points you want to discuss (Burnett, 2001).  They, essentially, provide you with a map for the paper you want to produce.


Think of an outline as a working Table of Contents.  Once you have that table created, you need only add in your discussion.  Before you begin building your outline, you should first identify the genre you are following (e.g., essay, journal article, theses proposal, etc.); doing so will help you determine what the outline’s structure should look like (Johnson-Sheehan, 2010).  Once you have a structure, begin putting together the primary headings.  The first heading should serve as an introduction to your work; it should also include your claim (Turabian, 2007).  The following headings should be the major points that support your claim; the last would be reserved for your conclusion.  (Depending on your genre, each heading may serve as a paragraph, section, or chapter.)  You may choose to create all of your major headings first and then add support or work through one heading at a time, adding support to each as you progress.


The great thing about an outline is that you can work back and forth.  Perhaps you decide you don’t need all of the major points.  Simply delete them!  You may get your outline together and realize you’ve forgotten a point or two.  Add them in!  You might get to the end of your outline and find not all points are supported appropriately.  You can next decide to either add support or remove that point entirely.


While creating an outline does add a layer of work to your writing, it can, in the end, save you time, work, and frustration.  Consider using one the next time you have some writing to do.  To look at a sample outline, visit


Burnett, R. (2001). Technical communication (5th ed.). Forth Worth: Harcourt College Publishers.

Johnson-Sheehan, R. (2010). Technical communication today (3rd ed.). New York: Longman.

Turabian, K. (2007). A manual for writers of research papers, theses, and dissertations (7th ed.). Chicago: The
University of Chicago Press.