Outline (Composition)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

William Coyle and Joe Law, Research Papers, 15th ed. (Wadsworth, 2010). Illustration by Claire Cohen. © 2018 ThoughtCo.

An outline is a plan for or a summary of a writing project or speech.

An outline is usually in the form of a list divided into headings and subheadings that distinguish main points from supporting points. Most word processors contain an outlining feature that allows writers to format outlines automatically. An outline may be either informal or formal.

On Informal Outlines

"The working outline (or scratch outline or informal outline) is a private affair—fluid, subject to constant revision, made without attention to form, and destined for the wastebasket. But enough working outlines have been retrieved from wastebaskets that something can be said about them...A working outline usually begins with a few phrases and some descriptive details or examples. From them grow fragmentary statements, tentative generalizations, hypotheses. One or two of these take on prominence, shaping into the main ideas that seem worth developing. New examples bring to mind new ideas, and these find a place in the list of phrases, canceling out some of the original ones. The writer keeps adding and subtracting, juggling and shifting, until he has his key points in an order that makes sense to him. He scribbles a sentence, works in a transition, adds examples...By then, if he has kept expanding and correcting it, his outline comes close to being a rough summary of the essay itself." -Wilma R.

Ebbitt and David R. Ebbitt

On the Outline as Draft

"Outlining might not be very useful if writers are required to produce a rigid plan before actually writing. But when an outline is viewed as a kind of draft, subject to change, evolving as the actual writing takes place, then it can be a powerful tool for writing. Architects often produce multiple sketches of plans, trying out different approaches to a building, and they adapt their plans as a building goes up, sometimes substantially (it is fortunately much easier for writers to start over or make basic changes)." -Steven Lynn

On the Post-Draft Outline

"You might prefer...to construct an outline after, rather than before, writing a rough draft. This lets you create a draft without restricting the free flow of ideas and helps you rewrite by determining where you need to fill in, cut out, or reorganize. You may discover where your line of reasoning is not logical; you may also reconsider whether you should arrange your reasons from the most important to the least or vice versa in order to create a more persuasive effect. Ultimately, outlining after the first draft can prove useful in producing subsequent drafts and a polished final effort." -Gary Goshgarian

On Topic Outlines and Sentence Outlines

"Two types of outlines are most common: short topic outlines and lengthy sentence outlines. A topic outline consists of short phrases arranged to reflect your primary method of development. A topic outline is especially useful for short documents such as letters, e-mails, or memos...For a large writing project, create a topic outline first, and then use it as a basis for creating a sentence outline. A sentence outline summarizes each idea in a complete sentence that may become the topic sentence for a paragraph in the rough draft. If most of your notes can be shaped into topic sentences for paragraphs in the rough draft, you can be relatively sure that your document will be well organized." (Gerald J. Alred, et al., Handbook of Technical Writing, 8th ed. Bedford/St. Martin's, 2006)

Formal Outlines

Some teachers ask students to submit formal outlines with their papers. Here is a common format used in constructing a formal outline.

Arrangement of Letters and Numbers in a Formal Outline
I. (main topic)

A. (subtopics of I)
1. (subtopics of B)
a. (subtopics of 2)
i. (subtopics of b)

Note that subtopics are indented so that all letters or numbers of the same kind appear directly under one another. Whether phrases (in a topic outline) or complete sentences (in a sentence outline) are used, topics and subtopics should be parallel in form. Make sure that all items have at least two subtopics or none at all.

Example of Vertical Outline

"To outline your material vertically, write your thesis at the head of the page and then use headings and indented subheadings:

Thesis: Though many things make me want to score goals, I love scoring most of all because it momentarily gives me a sense of power.
I. Common reasons for wanting to score goals
A. Help team
B. Gain glory
C. Hear cheers of crowd
II. My reasons for wanting to score goals
A. Feel relaxed
1. Know I'm going to score a goal
2. Move smoothly, not awkwardly
3. Get relief from pressure to do well
B. See world in freeze-frame
1. See puck going into goal
2. See other players and crowd
C. Feel momentary sense of power
1. Do better than goalie
2. Take ultimate mind trip
3. Conquer anxiety
4. Return to earth after a moment

Besides listing points in order of rising importance, this outline groups them under headings that show their relation to each other and to the thesis."Besides listing points in order of rising importance, this outline groups them under headings that show their relation to each other and to the thesis." -James A.W. Heffernan and John E. Lincoln


  • Wilma R. Ebbitt and David R. Ebbitt, Writer's Guide and Index to English, 6th ed. Scott. Foresman and Company, 1978
  • Steven Lynn, Rhetoric and Composition: An Introduction. Cambridge University Press, 2010
  • Gary Goshgarian, et al., An Argument Rhetoric and Reader. Addison-Wesley, 2003
  • Gerald J. Alred, et al., Handbook of Technical Writing, 8th ed. Bedford/St. Martin's, 2006
  • James A.W. Heffernan and John E. Lincoln, Writing: A College Handbook, 3rd ed. W.W. Norton, 1990