How to Write an Outline

Three Parts:Sample OutlinesPlanning Your OutlineWriting Your Outline

An outline is a great way to organize your thoughts and research if you’re preparing a speech, an essay, a novel, or even a study guide. Scroll down to see step 1 to get started with writing your outline!

Quick Outline Slideshow

Sample Outlines

Sample Compare and Contrast Outline

Sample Literature Outline

Sample Research Essay Outline

Part 1
Planning Your Outline

  1. Image titled Write an Outline Step 1
    Choose a topic. Outlines help you organize your thoughts before you start writing. But what is the topic of your paper or writing project? It's all right to pick a broad topic at this point. Writing your outline might help you narrow it down to a specific argument.
    • For example, your history paper topic could be French life during German occupation in World War II. As you write your outline, you might narrow this down to the resistance fighters called maquisards.
    • When outlining a creative project, such as a novel, you don't need a thesis or subject area. Instead, your outline will help you plan the structure of your work.
  2. Image titled Write an Outline Step 2
    Decide on your main goal. A paper can try to persuade the reader of your argument, inform the reader about a topic, or reflect on your personal experience. Choose one of these goals, along with the specific argument, topic, or experience the paper will be about. If you are writing a persuasive, analytic paper, write a thesis statement to structure your work. Here are three example approaches:
    • Compare and contrast two books, events, or people. This takes strong critical analysis skills.[1]
    • Present cause and effect for a historical event. Describe how a historical event came to happen the way it did, either the mainstream informative account or a new persuasive argument. You'll need plenty of research.
    • Describe how an experience changed you, practicing your communication skills.
  3. Image titled Write an Outline Step 3
    Gather supporting materials. Most of these will make it into your final paper, not your outline. However, reviewing your materials will help you plan out your essay. Write down subtopics that have a big pile of related quotes, statistics, or ideas. These will be the major parts of your outline. If you have other subtopics that you don't know much about, list them in a separate section for minor subtopics.
    • Skip this step if you're outlining a creative project. Research will be useful to add believable details, but these won't be in the outline.
    • Note down the page number where you found each piece of information.
  4. Image titled Write an Outline Step 4
    Choose a type of outline. You're almost ready to begin writing. Just choose one of these two outline structures:[2]
    • A topic outline uses short phrases with a few words each. When in doubt, start here.
    • A sentence outline uses complete sentences. Use this if your paper relies on many details that would take pages to list as separate bullet points.

Part 2
Writing Your Outline

  1. Image titled Write an Outline Step 5
    Order your main subtopics. If you're writing a story or presenting a historical argument, a chronological order makes sense. Otherwise, pick the subtopic with the most supporting materials, and lead with this argument. From there, order your major subtopics so each one naturally flows into the next.[3] Label each subtopic with a Roman numeral. Here's an example for a short paper:
    • Topic: History of the Automobile
    • I. Early Years: Pre-20th Century
    • II. Vintage and Classic Cars: 1900 to World War II
    • III. Modern Cars: After World War II
  2. Image titled Write an Outline Step 6
    Think of at least two points for each category. Select these sub-points based on both the purpose of your paper and the list of supporting materials you gathered earlier. These will form the second level of your outline, which is traditionally indented and labeled in letters of the English alphabet (A, B, C, D, etc.).
    • I. Early Years: Pre-20th Century
    • A. Early Steam Power
    • B. The Combustion Engine
    • II. Vintage and Classic Cars: 1900 to World War II
    • A. The Model T
    • B. Standardization of Technology
    • (continue for each section)
  3. Image titled Write an Outline Step 7
    Expand upon your points with sub-points if necessary. If one of your lettered sub-points is still a big topic or needs extra details explained, add another nested layer underneath. Put these in the third level of your outline, indented again and labeled in ordinary numbers (1, 2, 3, 4, etc.).
    • I. Early Years: Pre-20th Century
    • A. Early Steam Power
    • 1. Invention of steam engine
    • 2. 19th century developments
    • B. The Combustion Engine
    • 1. Early Benz automobiles
    • 2. Cars as a luxury item
    • (etc.)
  4. Image titled Write an Outline Step 8
    Add layers if necessary. If you need to add additional sub-layers, use lowercase Roman numerals (i, ii, iii, iv, etc.), then lowercase letters (a, b, c, d, etc.) and then finally switch to numbers again (1, 2, 3, 4, etc.). In most cases, three or four layers will be enough. Try to combine points first before you add a fifth.
  5. Image titled Write an Outline Step 9
    Think about your conclusion. You don't have to write it yet, but look over your outline and think about whether it matches your chosen goal. If you don't have enough evidence to support your conclusion, add more subtopics. If one of the subtopics is not relevant to your conclusion, delete it from your outline.


  • Be concise and straightforward in your outline. This doesn't have to be perfectly polished writing; it just has to get your point across.
  • Don't be afraid to eliminate irrelevant information as you conduct more research about your topic and narrow the area you want your writing to focus on.
  • Use outlines as a memorization tool. Choose concise words to trigger a concept.
  • You can use specialized software or a text editor template to structure an outline automatically. For example, Microsoft Word lets you create an outline document, or format it your own way.
  • Indent each level of your outline 0.5 to 1 inch (1.3 to 2.5 cm) past the previous level.
  • If you find evidence that contradicts your argument, don't ignore it. Include it in your outline, and use sub-steps to summarize your counter-argument.


  • Your outline should not be your essay in a different form. Only write down the major assertions, note every single detail.
  • Generally, you should avoid only having one point or sub-point on any outline level. If there is an A, either come up with a B or fold A's idea into the next level up.

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