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After brainstorming for ideas (and researching, if you are writing a longer, researched paper), the next stage of the writing process is to organise your ideas into an outline before you begin on the first draft. This page explains what an outline is, gives reasons why you should outline your essay or report, shows you what an outline looks like, and gives the features of a good outline. There is also a checklist at the end of the page that you can use to check your own outline.

What is an outline?

An outline is a plan for your writing. It will include the main ideas and show how they are organised and the overall structure. It is often used for essays, in which case it will include elements of the introduction such as the thesis statement, an overview of each paragraph including the topic sentences and supporting ideas, and elements of the conclusion, for instance the summary. It can also be used for other types of writing such as reports.

Why outline?

An outline will assist you in your writing for three main reasons. First, it will help you to organise your ideas. This is especially important for longer writing, such as researched essays, where there may be large amounts of information to keep track of. Even for shorter essays, however, it is important to put the information in a logical order so that the reader can follow your main argument. Secondly, it will help ensure your writing has unity. Unity means that all ideas relate to the central theme of the paragraph. Writing an outline will help you to focus on the central theme and thereby include only those ideas which relate to it, while omitting any which are irrelevant. Finally, an outline will aid in the process of writing by breaking down the task into more manageable components. Writing a 1500 word essay is a daunting task; writing a 100 word 'map' of the essay is much easier.

What does an outline look like?

An outline can take many forms. The simplest form, recommended for exam essay writing when time is limited, comprises simply adding numbers and/or letters to ideas generated during brainstorming so that you can put them in a logical order before writing. Most outlines, however, are written out in a linear way, using a format similar to linear notes for reading or listening.

The following is an example outline for the section Why outline? above.

An outline will assist you in your writing for three main reasons.

1. Organise ideas

i. keep track of ideas (esp. longer writing)

ii. put in logical order

2. Create unity

i. means all ideas relate to centre theme

ii. include only relevant ideas

iii. exclude irrelevant ideas

3. Aid in writing process

i. breaks down task

ii. makes 1500 word essay easier with 100 word 'map'

The above outline is fairly detailed, showing the topic sentence, main ideas and supporting details. Below is a simpler outline for the same paragraph, showing only the main ideas.

An outline will assist you in your writing

1. Organise ideas

2. Create unity

3. Aid in writing process

The second outline is simpler and therefore takes less time to write. The detail in the first outline, however, will make it easier to write the paragraph and so save time later. Which style of outline - detailed or simple - will depend on your preference. Try using both and see which one helps you most.

What are the features of a good outline?

In order to be effective, an outline will have the following three features.

  • Parallel structure. Each heading and subheading should have the same form. In the example above, the three main ideas, labelled 1, 2 and 3, are all verbs ('Organise', 'Create' and 'Aid'). All points labelled i., ii. etc. are also verbs ('keep track', 'put in' etc.).
  • Coordination. Each heading (and subheading) should have equal significance. In the example above, points labelled 1, 2 and 3 are all equal (they are the 'three main reasons'). Those labelled i., ii. etc. are the supporting details, and therefore equal in significance.
  • Subordination. Headings should be more general, while subheadings should be more specific. In the example above, the headings are the main ideas, while the subheadings are the supporting details (and therefore more specific).

A detailed outline will also have the following feature.

  • Division. Each heading should be divided into at least two parts.


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Below is a checklist for this section.

Item OK? Comments
I have written an outline for my essay/report.
My outline contains elements such as topic sentence and supporting ideas.
My outline uses parallel structure, coordination and subordination (and, for a detailed outline, division).


Oshima, A. and Hogue, A. (1999) Writing Academic English. New York: Addison Wesley Longman.

Tardiff, E. and Brizee, A. (2018) Four Main Components for Effective Outlines. Available at: https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/544/01/ (Access date 31/3/18).

Tardiff, E. and Brizee, A. (2018) Why and How to Create a Useful Outline. Available at: https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/544/02/ (Access date 31/3/18).

University of Maryland University College (2018) Prewriting and Outlining. Available at: http://www.umuc.edu/current-students/learning-resources/writing-center/writing-resources/getting-started-writing/prewriting-and-outlining.cfm (Access date 31/3/18).

Next section

Read more about writing the first draft in the next section.

Previous section

Read the previous article about researching.


Sheldon Smith

Author: Sheldon Smith    ‖    Last modified: 02 March 2020.

Sheldon Smith is the founder and editor of EAPFoundation.com. He has been teaching English for Academic Purposes since 2004. Find out more about him in the about section and connect with him on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.

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