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Essay Formal Outline Format

Outlines can be a helpful tool when you're trying to organize your thoughts for an essay or research paper.  After you've decided on a topic and done some brainstorming to generate ideas, think about the best way to group your ideas together.

Ask yourself:  What is my main point or purpose in writing this paper?  The answer will help you form a thesis statement. 

Ask yourself:  Can I list at least 3 larger concepts that will support my main idea?  These larger topics will make up the body paragraph sections of your outline.

Ask yourself:  How can I organize the rest of my ideas so that they fit within these larger categories?  These ideas will make up the sub-topics of your outline. 

Ask yourself:  What else do I want or need to say about this topic to fulfill my assignment?  These additions should be placed on your outline, as well.

A Note About Formatting:  Outlines usually follow a specific format using parallelism, Roman Numerals, upper case letters, and sometimes numbers to indicate ideas with different levels of importance.  Unless your instructor is planning to collect and grade your outline based on proper formatting, try not to get too hung up on making sure that you're formatting each section properly.  The important thing to remember is that the outline is meant to be a helpful organizational tool--compose your outline in such a way that it will be helpful to you!

Example of a Formal Outline

  1. Introduction/Tentative Thesis
  2. Main Topic 1
    1. Support 1
    2. Evidence 1
    3. Example 1
    4. Support 1
  3. Main Topic 2
    1. Support 2
    2. Evidence 2
  4. Main Topic 3
    1. Evidence 3
    2. Example 1
    3. Support 1
  5. Conclusion
    1. Topic 1
    2. Topic 2
    3. Topic 3

Reverse Outline

A simpler, more informal type of outline can be helpful after you've written your rough draft.  If you find that your essays are often disorganized or you tend to struggle with transitions, reverse outlines might be a useful tool for you.

What is a reverse outline?  Reverse outlines are informal lists that are created after a rough draft has been written, to help you visually see what you're discussing in your essay

How do I create one?  You can make a formal outline if you want, but often the best type of reverse outline simply involves jotting down notes in the margins of your draft.  Follow these steps: 

  1. Read your introduction paragraph.  Underline your thesis statement.
  2. Read each body paragraph slowly.  Each time you finish a paragraph, jot down the main idea that the paragraph discussed, in the margins.
  3. Read each body paragraph again and jot down notes about the supporting information that was discussed in each paragraph, in the margins.
  4. Read your conclusion paragraph.  Check to make sure that it refers back to your thesis statement, but uses different words to do so.

In order to use this reverse outline as a revision tool, you'll need to take a look at the main ideas that have been presented.  Ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Do each of these body paragraph topics support my thesis statement?  (Consider removing anything that wanders away from your topic)
  2. Have I discussed the same idea or topic in multiple places throughout the draft?  (Group similar ideas together!)
  3. Have I used clear transitions to show how each paragraph relates to the surrounding paragraphs?  (If not, add connecting words or transitional phrases)
  4. Have I covered everything that I wanted to say about my topic?  (Look for holes in your information, then add paragraphs or sentences to fill them)
  5. Have I tried to cover too much information or rambled on about a particular idea for a long time?  (Narrow your topic and/or remove unnecessary words)

This is a formal outline for your final research paper. It will present your thesis, the major points in support of that thesis, and the sub-points supporting each major point. It may have additional levels of sub-sub-points if you feel that is necessary.

The basic idea of a formal outline is that different types of letters or numbers (I, A, 1, a, i) represent different levels of the hierarchy of your paper, and sub-levels are indented below main levels. For example:

  1. This is the first main point
    1. This is the first sub-point under I
    2. This is the second sub-point under I
      1. Sub-point B has its own sub-points
      2. But you�d only list them if there were more than one
  2. Here�s the second main point
    1. It has two sub-points
    2. But this one has no sub-sub points

(If you�re using Microsoft Word, you might find yourself getting frustrated by its �helpful� approach to formatting lists. My advice is, don�t sweat the formatting too much. I�d prefer that you follow this or a similar format, but the main thing is that the relations among ideas should be clear. The reader should be able to see at a glance which are the main points, which are the secondary points, which are at the third level of importance, and so on. It should also be obvious which secondaery points belong under which main points. Usually this is accomplished by using different numbering for different levels, and indenting the less important levels. But if you can�t make that work, do whatever you have to so that the relationships are clear.)

Some guidelines for formal outlines are presented in “Developing an Outline” at the Purdue University Online Writing Lab. Please follow those guidelines when writing your outline.

In addition to the elements of a formal outline, please also:

  • Include a thesis statement at the start.
  • Cite your sources: list all authors used in each section in parentheses at the end of that section
  • Attach a list of sources that includes all the sources used for the outline and no others. This list may differ from the one you submitted for the Preliminary Bibliography, if you have added new sources or eliminated old ones.

Topic and Sentence Outlines

There are two major types of outline:

  • Topic Outline
  • Sentence Outline

A topic outline lists words or phrases. A sentence outline lists complete sentences.

A topic outline arranges your ideas hierarchically (showing which are main and which are sub-points), in the sequence you want, and shows what you will talk about. As the name implies, it identifies all the little mini-topics that your paper will comprise, and shows how they relate.

A sentence outline does all of this, plus it shows exactly what you will say about each mini-topic. Each sentence, instead of simply identifying a mini-topic, is like a mini-thesis statement about that mini-topic. It expresses the specific and complete idea that that section of the paper will cover as part of proving the overall thesis.

The method described below will produce a sentence outline.

Your sentence outline should, if done thoroughly and carefully, represent almost a first draft of your research paper. Once you’ve written it, the paper will practically write itself. You’ll just be filling in the blanks, so to speak—providing specific examples and other support to flesh out and prove the ideas you’ve already sketched out. The purpose, in other words, of doing this work is not to make work for you, but to save you work in the long run by breaking the job down into smaller, manageable tasks.

Tip: Outlines can be very detailed or very general, but the more detail you have the farther you’ll get toward writing your paper. Here’s an example. A paper of 12 pages (about 4,500 words) might have four major topics or points, represented by roman numerals (I - IV) in the outline. This would mean each point would represent about three pages of the final paper. These three pages will include background information, multiple sources, different pieces of evidence and explanation supporting that point, and often a brief description of alternative views and an explanation of why those views are not so convincing. Smaller points supporting each of the main points might then take up a single page, or 2 - 3 paragraphs—again with evidence, explanation, alternative views and so on. Finally, even smaller points under these might correspond to individual paragraphs in the final draft.

Writing the Sentence Outline

  1. Write out your thesis at the top of the page.
  2. Make a list of points you must prove to prove your thesis. What would someone have to agree with, in order to agree with the thesis?
    • These will be the main sections of your paper. Like the thesis, these should be complete, declarative sentences—something you can either prove or disprove.
  3. On a new page, write your first main point. This is the thesis for that section of the paper.
  4. Make a list of the points you have to prove to prove that point. Just as with the main points, these should be complete, declarative sentences—statements you can prove or disprove.
  5. These are your sub-points for that section.
  6. Repeat the process for each of your main points.

Once you have the main points and supporting points written down, it’s time to start organizing. First make sure which are main and which are supporting points. For example, you may find that what you thought was a main point is really part of proving another main point. Or, what you first listed under a main point may need its own section. This may change as you continue to work on the outline and draft the paper.

Now you can decide what order you want to present your ideas in. Again, label them with letters or numbers to indicate the sequence.

Tip: Don’t just settle for one organization. Try out at least two different sequences. You’ll be surprised at the connections that emerge, the possibilities that open up, when you rearrange your ideas. You may find that your thesis suddenly snaps into focus, or that points that seemed unrelated in fact belong together, or that what you thought was a main idea is actually a supporting idea for another point. Good writing is all about re-vision, which literally means “seeing again”—seeing your work from a fresh perspective. You can do this at every stage of the writing process, and especially at the organization stage.

Finally, write up the outline in the order you’ve chosen. Remember to include a thesis statement at the start of the outline, and cite and list your sources.

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