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:


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