How to Outline a Chapter

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When you read a chapter in a textbook from beginning to end, it’s easy to get swept away in a sea of details and overlook the main ideas. If you’re short on time, you might not even be able to make it through the entire chapter. By creating an outline, you’ll be sifting through the information strategically and efficiently.  Outlining helps you to focus on the most important points and gloss over excess detail.

When you make an outline, you’re effectively creating an exam study guide in advance. If you put together a good outline, you won’t even have to return to your textbook when exam time arrives.

Reading assignments don’t have to feel like a dull slog. Creating an outline while you read will keep your brain stimulated and help you retain more information. To get started, follow this simple outlining process next time you read a textbook chapter.​​

1. Carefully read the first paragraph of the chapter.

In the first paragraph, the author establishes a basic structure for the entire chapter. This paragraph tells you what topics will be covered and what some of the chapter’s main themes will be. It may also include key questions that the author plans to answer in this chapter. Make sure you read this paragraph slowly and carefully. Absorbing this information now will save you a lot of time later.

2. Carefully read the last paragraph of the chapter. ​

Yes, that’s right: you get to skip ahead!

In the very last paragraph, the author sums up the chapter’s conclusions about the main topics and themes, and may provide brief answers to some of the key questions raised in the first paragraph. Again, read slowly and carefully.   

3. Write down every heading.

After reading the first and last paragraphs, you should have a broad sense of the chapter’s content.

Now, return to the beginning of the chapter and write down the title of each section heading. These will be the largest headings in the chapter, and should be identifiable by a big, bold font or bright color. These headings reflect the chapter’s main topics and/or themes.

4. Write down every subheading. ​

Back to the beginning of the chapter! Repeat the process from Step 3, but this time, write down the subheadings beneath every section heading.  The subheadings reflect the main points the author will make about each topic and/or theme covered in the chapter.

5. Read the first and last paragraph of every subheading section. Make notes.

Are you sensing a theme yet? The first and last paragraphs of each subheading section typically contain that section’s most important content. Record that content in your outline. Don’t worry about using complete sentences; write in whatever style is easiest for you to understand.

6. Read the first and last sentence of every paragraph. Make notes.

Return to the beginning of the chapter. This time, read the first and last sentence of every paragraph. This process should reveal significant details that might not be included elsewhere in the chapter. Write down the important details you find in each subheading section of your outline.

6 Quickly skim the chapter, looking for bold terms and/or statements.

For the final time, flip through the entire chapter, skimming each paragraph for terms and/or statements that the author emphasizes with bold or highlighted text. Read each one and record it in the proper section in your outline.


Remember, every textbook is a little different and may require a slightly modified outlining process. For example, if your textbook includes introductory paragraphs beneath every section heading, make a point of reading those in full and including a few notes in your outline. Your textbook might also include a table of contents at the beginning of each chapter, or better yet, a chapter summary or review.  When you finish your outline, you can double-check your work by comparing it to these sources.

You’ll be able to make sure your outline isn’t missing any of the major points highlighted by the author.

At first, it might seem strange to skip over sentences. “How can I understand the content if I don't read all of it?” you might ask. Counterintuitive though it may feel, this outlining process is a simpler, faster strategy for understanding what you read. By starting with a broad view of the chapter’s main points, you’ll be able to better comprehend (and retain) details and their significance.

Plus, if you have extra time, I promise you can go back and read every line in the chapter from beginning to end. You’ll probably be surprised by how well you already know the material.

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Your Citation
Valdes, Olivia. "How to Outline a Chapter." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2017, Valdes, Olivia. (2017, August 26). How to Outline a Chapter. Retrieved from Valdes, Olivia. "How to Outline a Chapter." ThoughtCo. (accessed September 24, 2017).