Creating a Working Outline

An outline is a systematic way of organizing your ideas for your paper. Any list can be an informal outline and may work for your purposes. Sometimes you may want to use a formal outline to manage your information as your research expands. This can help you organize your information as you draft your paper.

Many writers organize their work more quickly and easily when they first make an outline of the material they wish to cover. Since you already know your main points, the writing goes much faster. Also, outlining helps to discover if you have enough supporting reasons on the topic or evidence to prove a point, so you don’t waste time writing full paragraphs on a topic about which you have little to say.

The organizing principle of your outline will depend on your topic, the argument you intend to make, and the expectations of your audience. There are as many types of outlines as there are writers! Some people work better with longer outlines of complete sentences; others find that simple keywords do the trick. Whether you are developing a topic outline or a sentence outline, keep the following points in mind: 

  • Work from your thesis statement. Everything in your essay needs to connect to your thesis, which is the main idea of the essay, so drafting a tentative one first can help unify your points as you start outlining. In fact, it's wise to put it at the top of your outline for reference. However, you will often find that your points change as you start to outline. Just make sure to adjust your thesis to fit with the direction of the rest of your essay. See Thesis Statements for tips on drafting one.
  • Most word processing programs will automatically fill in the numbers and letters when they recognize that you are creating an outline.
  • Start with broader topics by adding in major points. These can eventually turn into the topic sentences of each paragraph. 
  • Then work toward the specifics with supporting details and evidence. Make sure to put the citations for any evidence from sources in the outline too. This will save you a lot of time later and helps to avoid accidentally plagiarizing.  
  • Lastly, it may be helpful to include analysis in your outline as well. This means following the evidence with explanations of why it is important or useful to your point. 

You can easily build on your outline to the point where you have full paragraphs. Just remember to take out the outline formatting (numbers and indentation) before submitting a full draft of the essay. 

Sample Outline

An outline of a writing project can serve as a reliable road map to your project’s destination. By outlining your key points, you can ensure that your most important ideas do not get left behind. The following outline structure can be helpful as you develop your individual outlining style. This is a general outline structure. Some types of writing or assignments may require different sections and/or organizations, so check your assignment directions carefully. 

A. Introduction

1. Hook or attention grabber  

2. Introduce Area/Persons of Focus 

3. Provide context, background information, and/or key terms 

4. Thesis statement 

B. Background (optional depending on the type of paper) 

1. Historical Overview

2. Link between history and current events

3. Gaps in the current materials

C. Major Point I: _____________________ 

1. Minor point related to Major Point I 

 a. Evidence (Name your sources in your outline!)

 b. Analysis of evidence 

2. Minor point II related to Major Point I

 a. Evidence

 b. Analysis of evidence

D. Major Point II: ____________________

1. Minor point related to Major Point II 

 a. Evidence 

 b. Analysis of evidence 

2. Minor point related to Major Point II 

 a. Evidence 

 b. Analysis of evidence 

E—G. Other Major Points, following the structure of C and D.

H. Conclusion

1. Restatement of thesis and summary of main points 

2. Connect back to the audience by explaining why they should care 

3. Next steps in the research and literature conversation 

4. Limitations in the research 

5. Final note like a suggestion or prediction 

Outlining is not the only prewriting activity you can try. See the KU Writing Center writing guide on Prewriting Strategies for more ideas.  

(Updated July 2022)