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Writers' Center

Eastern Washington University

Researching and Planning Your Paper

Outlining Overview

An outline maps out the thesis and the major and minor ideas in your paper or presentation. Outlining before you begin writing helps you organize your subject matter and its development toward your conclusion. Following an outline can help you avoid pitfalls like rambling, getting off topic, and making weak arguments.

Essay Structure

The overall structure of an essay may look something like this:

Basic Outlining Form

Outlines can be structured in many, many different ways. Your outline might be a rough list of ideas in the order you'd like them to appear in your paper, a more formal and developed outline to turn in for a class, or something in between. Below is a basic outline form.

   Intro with thesis

           I.  MAIN IDEA with transition and topic sentence
                  A. Sub-point of I
                  B. Sub-point of I
                      1. Sub-point of B
                      2. Sub-point of B
                          a) Sub-point of 2
                          b) Sub-point of 2

           II.  MAIN IDEA with transition and topic sentence
                  A. Sub-point of II
                  B. Sub-point of II
                  C. Sub-point of II

           III.  MAIN IDEA with transition and topic sentence

      etc.

   Conclusion with restated thesis

Here, the thesis may take the form of a sentence, a paragraph, or a fragment. Roman numerals identify main ideas. Indented capital letters identify sub-points under each main idea. Further indented italic numbers identify sub-points under the capital letters. If necessary, indented lowercase letters identify sub-points under the numbers. It is up to the writer to decide on how many main ideas and sub-points support the subject and move the argument forward. 

If you have freedom to structure the outline any way you'd like, you could also try a visual outline, like a flowchart or a timeline:

See the "Helpful Links" box for more guidelines and samples of outlines.

Writing Your Paper

Now that you've completed an outline of your paper, it's time to begin writing!