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An outline is a list of the topics covered in your essay. Many students imagine this is just one more time-consuming step forced on them by their cruel instructors, so they usually write the outline after they write the essay. However, if done before you begin to write, an outline is a time-saving tool that shows you visually whether your essay will flow logically and be long enough to fulfill your instructor's page requirement. It can also help you focus your paper and can reveal the need for further expansion or limitation of your topic.

Once you have taken a little time to generate an organized outline, your paper might almost write itself. It will be coherent and logical, clearly conveying the thoughts you plan to develop in your paper. On the other hand, if the outline is disorganized, this is a sign that your paper could be disorganized as well and that you should probably spend a bit more time at the outlining stage before you begin to write your draft.

To create an outline, first, jot down as many ideas on your topic as possible without regard to order. Next, group related ideas together under themes or major headings. Remember, an outline shows the divisions of your essay. Main ideas are designated by Roman numerals I, II, III, IV, V and so on. Supporting ideas branching off from the main idea are designated by capital letters A, B, C, D, etc. Subdivisions of these supporting ideas are marked by Arabic numerals 1, 2, 3, 4, etc. Minor ideas are designated by lower case letters a, b, c, etc.

Since outlining is an exercise in dividing larger topics into smaller ones, you'll obviously have to break each one into at least two parts. This is why, if you have an A, you must have a B listed, a 1 requires a 2, and so on. This can help you to see which parts of your paper might be too skimpy. For example, if you can only come up with one detail to support a main heading, there's probably not enough information to turn that idea into a paragraph.

Outlines are usually developed in topic or sentence form:

Topic Outline: Use short phrases only, not full sentences.

Swimming is an excellent sport for senior citizens. (thesis)

  1. Pleasure
    1. Relaxation
    2. Competition
      1. Senior Olympics
      2. Water aerobics classes
  2. Health
    1. Physical exercise
      1. Strengthens muscles
      2. Tones body
      3. Increases endurance
      4. Strengthens heart
    2. Mental alertness
      1. Relieves stress
      2. Retains youth
  3. Companionship
    1. Activity done with others
    2. Introduces new friends

Sentence Outline: Use sentences for headings/supporting ideas.

Swimming is an excellent sport for senior citizens. (thesis)

  1. It provides pleasure.
    1. It is an enjoyable way to relax.
    2. To compete with each other is exciting.
      1. Seniors can participate in Senior Olympics.
      2. They can compete in water aerobic classes.
  2. Swimming is a healthy exercise.
    1. It helps keep the elderly physically fit.
      1. It strengthens muscles.
      2. It tones the body.
      3. It builds endurance.
      4. It strengthens the heart.
    2. It increases mental alertness.
      1. The physical exertion helps relieve stress.
      2. Being more alert keeps the elderly younger longer.
  3. Meeting regularly provides seniors with companionship.
    1. It is an organized activity with their peers.
    2. It is a wonderful way to make new friends.

Sample Outline Format:













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