The Ins and Outs of Outlines

When students visit the Writing Center, one common request is simply for help getting started with their paper. Most students already have an idea for a topic they want to write about, but once pen meets paper (or fingers meet keyboard) beginning writers often stall out on exactly how and where to begin. Sound familiar?

The first question I’ll ask is, “Did you create an outline?”

Typical responses include

“I don’t like making outlines.”
“Outlines take too much time.”
“Outlines don’t work for me.”
“The teacher didn’t require an outline.”

Often our ideas are a jumbled mess in our heads, and getting them out on paper will help organize the ideas into a logical and effective paper. It’s difficult to know how you’re going to get somewhere without clear directions, or a roadmap to chart your way.

Alphanumeric Outline

The most common type of outline is an Alphanumeric Outline, or the traditional alphabet and numeral combination that looks something like this:









The topics flow logically in an alphanumeric outline. Related material is grouped under general headings, and sections are arranged so that the subjects proceed in a logical order. The example above is a topic outline, but often writers use a sentence outline, which uses complete sentences throughout each section, offering a bit more detailed information.

Graphic Outline

If your instructor requires you to write an outline for your paper, most will expect the traditional alphanumeric outline shown above. However, for some students, these types of highly structured, detailed, well-organized outlines make no sense. When I was a student, I had more problems writing these types of outlines than writing the paper itself! By the time I finally got to Roman Numeral II or III, I was so confused I didn’t know A from V. After years of struggling to fit my essays into these neat charts of letters and numbers that I could never make sense of, I learned they didn’t make sense because I am a visual, non-verbal learner. I am artistically inclined, so these super-organized, highly detailed, left-brain charts were like trying to fit a right-brain, square peg (me) into a round hole.

For left-brain, or mathematically-minded people, alphanumeric outlines make perfect sense. But creative or right-brain thinkers think visually. We need pictures, and graphic outlines are another way to outline that take the same information, but lay it out in a different way.


The diagram to the left places the main topic idea in the center, and the outer circles are the supporting information related to the topic. Once you figure out what the topic is, brainstorm what you want to discuss about the topic.

For instance, I am writing a paper about Shakespeare. So I’ll put “Shakespeare’s Works” in the center: 



Now I need to brainstorm what I want to say about Shakespeare. I know I want to focus on his work, so I’ll add these to the outer circles:







 To fill out the graphic outline, add specifics for each subcategory. We might add Hamlet beside “Tragedies”; Much Ado About Nothing would connect with “Comedies”; “Histories” might include Henry VIII, and so on, until the graphic outline is filled in with the information you want in your paper.

Another style of graphic outline for a research paper might place the thesis at the left, and lay out the subtopics and major points to the right, like the diagram below:  




Regardless of which type of outline you use, as you read and think about the information you have accumulated in your research, you will begin to find connections, and a logical pattern of organization will often come into view. Your outline may change as you accumulate more research, but in the end, taking the time to create an outline, regardless of which format you prefer, will help you maintain an overview of your paper and send you on the way to a well-organized paper.

Visit the links below for other sample outlines:

Do List on Due Day: Editing Checklist






We’re coming to the end of another term, so this is the time students give a final spit and polish to their essay. Of course, by this time in the term, you have usually read your essay so many times your blind to any errors. Hopefully you’re done with the larger issues in the revision process and now can concentrate on the more detailed issues of line editing.

Instead of simply reading through and hoping to catch any and all errors or inconsistencies, it’s more productive to do a read-through for each section below. Even though you are reading through your essay a few times, you can read through faster when you are only concentrating on one aspect of editing.


Works Cited

1. The words, Works Cited, should be at the top of the page, not bolded, not italicized, and double spaced between the title and first entry.

2. Make sure all entries are closed with a period.

3. Make sure the entries are in alphabetical order.

4. Entire page double spaced.

5. Hanging indent, with the second line and subsequent lines of each entry indented.

6. Check multiple authors on the same entry. Only the first author’s name is inverted.

7. Multiple works by same author, use – – – (3 hyphens) instead of repeating name and list titles alphabetically.

8. For online articles or periodicals, if no author, list by title.

9. Make sure you’ve added “Print” or “Web” at the end of each citation.

10. Make sure Works Cited is paginated with essay (if essay is 10 pages long, Works Cited will be page 11).

In-text citations:

1. Make sure every citation is linked to an entry on the Works Cited page.

2. Make sure every direct quote has an attributive tag.

3. Check that all summaries and paraphrases are cited.

4. Make sure the punctuation is correct. The period goes AFTER the parentheses.

5. Make sure the quotation marks are in front of the parentheses. The citation is not part of the quote but it IS part of the sentence.

6. A quote by someone other than the author should have
(qtd. in …).

7. If you have a quote over 4 typed lines, it should be blocked (do not use this often). Blocked quotes have no quotation marks.

8. Move the period in FRONT of the parentheses on blocked quotes.

9. Blocked quotes are introduced with a complete sentence followed by a colon.

10. When the title is quite long, use an abbreviated version for the in-text citation (Ex: Glossary of Terms Used in Heraldry = Glossary) followed by page number. (Note: you would NOT use Heraldry, as you must use the first word so it correlates to Works Cited entry.)

 Grammar & Punctuation

1.    Run spellcheck and correct any errors.

2.    Make sure all sentences are complete, checking for fragments or comma splices.

3.    Make sure you know why you are inserting commas.

4.    Make sure you use a comma after introductory phrases.

5.    If your sentence begins with “there is” or “there are,” revise to eliminate this weak phrasing.

6.    If you use “not only,” you MUST use “but also” along with it. That’s a rule; those are called correlative conjunctions.

7.    Check for overuse of “is” as a verb and see if you can replace it with a more concrete verb.

8.    Edit out “we, our, us, you,” unless your instructor has said it is okay to use pronouns.

9.    If you are referring to a person, use “who” in clause structures (not “that”).

10.  Run an “Edit” and “Find” on words you confuse, such as then and than or were and where, making sure you are using them in the correct context.

Of course, this is an abbreviated list. Your instructor might have his or her own checklist of their personal preferences. Taking time to spit and polish one last time before you hand your essay over might make the difference between an okay grade and a WOW! grade. Don’t rely on someone else, including the Writing Center staff, to edit your writing. Learn to read carefully and catch your own mistakes. It’s worth the extra effort.