What are Components for Effective Outlines?

Why do people outline? Is there a purpose? What are outlines used for?

By way of definition, an outline is merely an ordered list of the chief writing points of an essay or another type of academic paper. Someone might decide to use an outline to help them better organize and define their subject matter, topic and also subtopics so that they can write their paper in a manner that offers a logical progression from the initial thesis statement throughout the supporting paragraphs and eventually to the conclusion.

Often times, a writer will use an outline in order to get a clearer picture of their ideas and to conceptualize how they will share them.

Prior to starting your outline, it is necessary to:

  • Define your purpose: What is the reason you were assigned this specific topic? What do you hep to learn? What are you hoping to share with your audience?
  • Determine who your audience is: Understanding who exactly you are writing for will help you to refine your paper.
  • Develop your thesis statement: After you’ve read over the main content on the subject you were assigned, develop a working thesis. You will likely write multiple drafts before coming up with a thesis statement worth keeping. To write your thesis statement, you must ask:
    1. Are there any gaps in the content available on the topic
    2. Is there anything that is unresolved or controversial about the topic?
    3. Have any changes in analysis, methodology, or data occurred that might bring new evidence to a previously studies subject?
    4. Has there been any economic, social or other impact?
    5. What would anyone care to read literature on this topic?

After you have developed a far-reaching thesis statement, write it at the top of the outline heading.

Components of Effective Outlines

Essentially, a writer should adhere to four standard suggestions when creating an effective outline. When creating a topic or summary outline, there are two rules that should be applied to capitalization. In the first level heading, the information should be presented in all capital letter, for the second and third, upper and lower case letters should be used. Here is an example:

Parallelism – How is this accomplished?

Every heading and the subsequent subheadings should preserve the parallel structure. Meaning, if the starting heading is a verb, the follow heading should be as well. For instance:

  1. Select preferred universities
  2. Write application

Select and Write are both verbs. Often, the present tense is the preferred choice in an outline.

Coordination – how is this achieved

The information from the first heading needs to hold the same weight as the information from the proceeding heading. This also rings true for any subheadings. For instance:

  1. Attend and analyse university campuses
  2. Attend and analyse university websites
    1. Record relevant facts
    2. Look for the sports teams

Both the campus and the website hold equal significance. They focus on the chief tasks that a student would likely do. Learning about interesting facts and extra curriculars on university websites around part of the actions involved in conducting the activities in the main heading.

How to create an effective outline

Whether you are creating an APA outline, a website outline, an annotated outline or some other form of outline, the reason for its development is more or less the same. Typically, this is to help define a logical order for the information to be relayed in. The primary reasons being,

  • To assist in the writing process
  • To help better organize facts and ideas
  • To help present material in a logical manner
  • To discover the relationship between multiple ideas or concepts
  • To define and determine boundaries

To create an outline, you must:

  • Determine the overall objective or purpose of your paper
  • Figure out who your audience is
  • Create your thesis statement

After this is done, you will:

  • Brainstorm or list out every idea that you feel should be mentioned in the paper
  • Group like minded ideas or concepts together
  • Arrange the ideas into subsections
  • Create your main heading and subheadings

It is wise to create your outline prior to starting to write the paper. Doing so will help to keep the paper organized and also help you to ensure that you are not overlooking any of the elements you wanted to include. There is no hard set rule that you must follow your outline to a t, it is to serve as a guide or a roadmap of sorts.

How to Define Outline

An outline is, more or less, a plan of action or a summary of a written essay, report, paper, etc. Typically, is comes in the form of a list organized into various headings and subheadings used to differentiate key points from supporting paragraphs or data. Word processors, like Microsoft Word, have outline creators or outline apps that help writers to automate the outline creation process. An outline can be formal or informal.

A formal outline might be arranged like this:

  1. (Primary topic)

a.(Subtopic of I)

b.(Subtopic of b.)

Subtopics should be indented in a way that allows numbers or letters of the same grouping to be placed directly underneath each other. In a topic outline you might use phrases, whereas in a sentence outline you would use complete sentences, topics and subtopics must be parallel. Each item should have a minimum of two subtopics.

Get professional research summary help from experienced writers.

Simple and Convenient Steps in Outlining

Similar to how an outline is a process, there is a process to outlining. The steps involved include:

  • Brainstorming every idea or fact that you feel should be included in the paper
  • Grouping together all of the likeminded ideas.
  • Sequencing the ideas in a logical progression
  • Labeling each idea with the proper heading and subheading. The labels need to be concise enough the that can be used to create a topic sentence for every one of the outline sections. Remember, an effective outline is not just a list of various topics, but more so a roadmap of ideas.
  • Create your first draft of the outline

Every outline should have the same characteristics. Those characteristics being:

  • Parallelism – making sure that each of the headings have the same form
  • Coordination – making sure that the headings at similar levels hold the same significance or value
  • Subordination – Making sure that heads are more broad than subheadings
  • Division – Making sure that each heading is subdivided into a minimum of two subheadings

Sample Outline Structure

Thesis Statement

  1. The Introduction
    1. What is the argument? Who, what, when, why and where?
    2. What analytical tools are going to be used in the analysis?
    3. What claims are going to be supported?
  2. The body
    1. What is the science-based evidence
    2. What is the theoretical evidence
    3. What is the evidence from parallel fields of study
    4. What is the relevance
    5. Are there any problems or inconsistencies with the evidence
  3. Conclusion
    1. A final analysis and review of the evidence
    2. How appropriate or effective was the methodology used
    3. Is additional research needed
    4. Restate the thesis statement and demonstrate its significance

Read also: Research paper guidelines every student should follow.

Making Use of Topic Outline

A topic outline lists phrases or words. It is a method for arranging ideas hierarchically in the order that you would like to follow, and also explains what you will talk about. It serves the purpose of identifying the smaller topics that will be included in the paper, and also demonstrates how they are related to each other.

There are several factors that must be taken into account when writing a topic outline.

  • All headings and subheadings need to be words or phrases and not complete sentences
  • The wording used inside each section must be parallel
  • Sections and subsections cannot be divided into a single part, meaning that if there is an A there must also be a B and if there is a 1 there also needs to be a 2.


  1. Dietary Problems
    1. Junk food
    2. Soda pop
    3. Refined sugar
  2. Economic problems
    1. High unemployment rate
    2. Low minimum wage
    3. High taxes
  3. Personal problems
    1. Divorce
    2. Addiction
    3. Mental health

Outlines are a useful tool for writers, and should be viewed as being essential. When deployed correctly, outlines help you to better organize your subject matter and topics in a manner that is not only easy to comprehend and follow, but also easier for anyone who might be reading your report to follow.

Find out more about paper outline and outline format.