Outlines: A Blueprint for Success

Making plans

We get lots of questions in the Writing Centers about outlines, from how to format to how to organize them. Many students complain about outlines; one recent student I worked with said he is confidant how to write his paper, but lost and confused when it comes to the required outline assignment. A working outline for your own use – perhaps simply a detailed list or graphic idea map – can be as simple as you need it, but if your instructor requires an outline of your research paper for a grade, the stakes are a bit higher.

An outline works as a blueprint for your paper; a construction worker wouldn’t begin to build a house without a blueprint, and a writer shouldn’t begin a long research paper without a similar plan. A good outline will help organize your thoughts and focus your research, saving you time. Writing a research paper takes concentrated time and effort, and the more efficient you can be, the better.

Below is one way to format a traditional Roman numeral outline. Always follow your instructor’s guidelines, as they may require certain elements for their assignment.

Traditional Alphanumeric Outline

This is the most common type of outline, and often the style your instructor will expect. The outline format always begins with Roman numeral I, and follows these characters, in this order:

 Roman Numerals

 Capitalized Letters

 Arabic Numerals

 Lowercase Letters

Hopefully you remember your Roman numerals from grade school. If not, don’t worry; you shouldn’t have to count too high!

I. Main point follows a Roman numeral.
     A. Minor points follow capital letters.
     B. Each minor point must refer to the major point above.
          1.) If there are subpoints below the minor point, use Arabic numerals.
          2.) Indent each point according to its importance.
          3.) Each subpoint must be related to the minor point it follows.
               a. If there are points below subpoints, use lower case letters.
               b. Indent below the subpoint; must relate to point above.
                    i.) Sometimes, there are even smaller subdivisions.
                   ii.) Use small Roman numerals with one parenthesis to separate.
     C. The next minor point below the major point.
II. Next Major point follows Roman numeral II.
     A. Minor point
     B. Minor point

Below is an example of an outline for a short paper on “The College Application Process.” If you are composing a longer research paper, simply add Roman numerals to follow your main points:


     A. Visit and evaluate college campuses
    B. Visit and evaluate college websites
          1.) Look for interesting classes
          2.) Note important statistics
     A. Write personal statement
          1.) Choose interesting topic
               a. Describe an influential person in your life
          1.) Favorite high school teacher
          2.) Grandparent
               b. Describe a challenging life event
          2.) Include important personal details
               a. Volunteer work
               b. Participation in varsity sports
     B. Revise personal statement
     A. List relevant coursework
     B. List work experience
     C. List volunteer experience
          1.) Tutor at foreign language summer camp
          2.) Counselor for suicide prevention hotline
ex. from Purdue Owl)

The main points of your topic will look like an abbreviated topic sentence for each paragraph. So, the first Roman numeral, or “I” would be for the introductory paragraph. The next Roman numeral, or “II” will be for first body paragraph. The third “III” for the second body, and so on. When the outline is complete, each Roman numeral should equal the number of paragraphs in the paper.

Below is another sample outline, this one more detailed for a longer paper: 

Topic: Using the Library for Research

 Thesis: Knowing How to Use the Library Is Important When Doing a Research Paper.

 I. Introduction
     A. Introductory device
     B. Thesis
     C. Supporting sentences
II. Introduction to the Library
     A. Programs of Orientation and Instruction
          1.) Pamphlets, Handbooks, Other Materials Distributed by the Library
          2.) Class Visits, Tours, Lectures, Courses
     B. Books about the Library (Examples: Gates, Cook, Patterson, Baker)
III. The Central Catalog
     A. Methods of Locating Books in the Online Catalog
          1.) Author
          2.) Title
          3.) Subject
     B. Systems of Classification
          1.) Dewey Decimal System
          2.) Library of Congress System
IV. Reference Works
     A. General Works (Dictionaries, Encyclopedias, Biographical Works, Yearbooks, Atlases, Gazettes)
     B. Specialized Dictionaries and Encyclopedias (In Alphabetical Order: Art, Astronomy, Etc.)
V. Bibliographical Sources
     A. Indexes to Periodicals (Newspapers, Magazine, and Television News Broadcasts)
     B. Specialized Bibliographies and Indexes (In Alphabetical Order: Art, Biology, Etc.)
     C. Abstracts (In Alphabetical Order: Abstracts in Anthropology, etc.)
VI. Location of Library Materials
     A. Main Collection
           1.) Open Stacks
          2.) Closed Stacks
     B. Special Sections
          1.) Folio-size Books
          2.) Reserved Books
          3.) Reference Works
          4.) Periodicals
          5.) Pamphlets, Clippings, Nonprint Materials
VII. Other Library Resources and Services
     A. Microforms: Microfilm, Microcard, Microfiche
     B. Computer Assistance in Research
     C. Other Assistance (e.g., Copying Facilities, Interlibrary Loans)
VIII. Conclusion – The Importance of Knowing about the Library, Its Materials and Services.
(from http://writingcenter.mcc.edu/Outlining.pdf)

As you construct your outline, keep in mind that for every I you’ll need a II; for every A, you’ll need a B; for every 1) you’ll need a 2), and so on. Also note that some instructors will want you to write the outline using full sentences, but more often, you’ll simply write a few words to communicate your points.

Also note in the examples above that following each Roman Numeral, capitalized letter, Arabic numeral, and lowercase letter, you’ll insert a period and one space.

Creating an outline before you begin writing a long research paper will prevent you from wasting time reading unrelated research or veering off point. Even though creating an outline comes early in the research essay writing process, you will still need to know your topic thoroughly and will have collected research, so you will have an idea how you will utilize it in the essay. As you compose your first draft, you may find additional information you didn’t have when you made the outline, but that’s okay. Outlines are malleable and adjustments are common, but creating an outline will give you a blueprint for success.

The Long and Short of Abbreviations


To abbreviate, or not to abbreviate? That is the question. The answer? It depends. When writing a research paper, you’ll probably find yourself asking this question sooner or later. As you compile your Works Cited, you’ll most likely find several words that must be abbreviated.

I.e. and e.g?

The abbreviations i.e. and e.g. are each commonly used in research papers. It’s also common to find they have been misused and confused. Both i.e. and e.g. are abbreviated Latin terms; i.e. stands for id est, which means “that is,” or “in other words.” E.g. stands for exempli gratia, which means “for the sake of example.”

It’s easy to remember the correct use of each if you use the beginning letters to help:

 “i” in i.e. = in other words

“e” in e.g. = example given

Joe loves watching old westerns (e.g., High Noon and Stagecoach).

The words following e.g. are examples, so you know that these are just some of the old westerns Joe loves watching

I.g. means in “in other words,” so use it to clarify or add further information:

Joe loves watching The Three Stooges (i.e., Larry, Moe, and Curly).

The words following i.e. provide clarification: they tell you the names of The Three Stooges.

Our pet hamster (i.e., the one Aunt Martha gave us) loves to eat Cheerios. Clarifies which hamster.

Our pet iguana loves vegetation (e.g., grass, leaves, twigs). Gives examples of vegetation.

For these abbreviations, you could also simply write out “for example” or “in other words” in your paper. If in doubt, write it out. Also, most style guides direct you to place a comma after e.g. and i.e., but as mine just did, the spellchecker told me to remove the comma. If you are using MLA documentation style, use a comma after.

Titles of Works

As you write the body of your paper, you may find the need to abbreviate often referred to titles of works. To avoid confusion, immediately after the first use of the title, place the abbreviated title in parenthesis:

In All’s Well That Ends Well (AWW), Shakespeare. . . .

Below are acceptable abbreviations for famous works:

Inf.      Dante, Inferno
FQ       Spencer, The Faerie Queene
GT       Swift, Gulliver’s Travels

Many great writers’ works, as noted above, have accepted abbreviations; however, if you are referencing a work without a commonly known abbreviation, you may devise your own simple abbreviation:

More Guns, Less Crime (MGLC)
The Road to Serfdom (RTS)
The Shadow University: The Betrayal Of Liberty On America’s Campuses (SU)

Works Cited

A Works Cited page will most always include numerous required abbreviations. Below are a few of the most common.


MLA rules dictate that all months be abbreviated on the list of Works Cited – except for May, June and July (because they are short words). Keep in mind that when you abbreviate a word, it must end with a period: Jan., Feb., Mar., etc.

Notice that I have a list of abbreviated months. The list requires me to add a comma after each. Note that I just concluded a sentence with the abbreviation “etc.”; the period that acts as the abbreviation mark also works as a period to end the sentence, so you DO NOT add another period at the end of the sentence. Stylistically, many grammarians suggest to avoid concluding a sentence with an abbreviated word to prevent confusion.

Keep in mind that if you refer to months in the body of your text, you would write out the entire word.


According to the MLA Handbook, the trend in abbreviations is to NOT use periods or place spaces between commonly abbreviated words, or words that are capitalized:

Unites States          US
New York                NY
British Columbia   BC
California                CA     


When including personal names, however, you would include a period and a space:

J. R. R. Tolkien
T. S. Eliot
E. B. White

Publication Info

It’s not uncommon find a book with missing publication information. Supply as much of the missing info as you can locate, using square brackets to indicate it did not come from the source:

n.p.                 No place of publication given
n.p.                 No publisher given
n.d.                 No date of publication
n.pag.             No page number given
c.                     circa (for approximate date)

You’re wondering, how do you know what the two n.p. abbreviations represent? If n.p. is inserted before the colon, it means no place. If the n.p. is placed after the colon, it indicates no publisher.

Scholarly Abbreviations Below is a list of a few of the most commonly abbreviated words found on Works Cited or Reference pages, which may or may not be capitalized, depending on their use and placement in the citation:

Anonymous             anon.
Appendix                  app.
Association               asso.
Chapter                     ch. or chap.
Dissertation             diss.
Document                doc.
Foreword                  fwd.
Illustration               illus.
journal                       jour.
Library                       lib.
Limited                      ltd.
Paragraph                 par.
Section                       sec. or sect.
Society                       soc.
University Press       UP
World Wide Web      www

This is only an abbreviated (!) list of abbreviations. MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers has an extensive list of other uses, and is one of the go-to source for related questions. If you are using another citations style other than MLA, always refer to that style guide.



All about Auxiliary Verbs


aux a

To understand auxiliary verb forms, let’s first review basic verbs. Verbs can take on different forms depending on how they are used in a sentence:

Base form: Children play in the park.

Infinitive: Tell them to play here.

Past tense: They played all day yesterday.

Past participle: He has played too long.

Present participle: I am playing with her today.

Gerund or noun form: Playing is children’s’ “work.”
(from Essentials of English Grammar)

Auxiliary, or helping verbs, help complete the verb form of past and present participles, as shown in the examples above, has played and am playing. The auxiliary verbs create a change of tense. They are also sometimes referred to as complex verbs. The combination of the auxiliary verb and the main verb is referred to as a verb phrase.

Auxiliary Verbs

The following are the most common auxiliary verbs that help complete a basic verb:

•be (am, are, is, was, were, being, been)
•have (had, has, having)
•do (did, does, doing)

Auxiliary + Main Verb

The dog is barking at the joggers.
The dogs are keeping me up at night.

The writer has finished his book.
The editors have ordered the book.

The teacher should let the students out on time.
We would like to go to the skate party.

She can work until lunch.
He could go home if his work is done.

I do like your new hairstyle.
I did pass the algebra exam.

I will go to school even though it snowed.
I shall buy the watercolor painting.

She must go to the doctor.
He ought to call the manager.


Auxiliary Word Order

Let’s look at 3 different examples of auxiliary verbs in a sentence:

After having eaten the last bite of dinner, Denise should have saved a piece of dessert for her sister, knowing she would be late.

Note that the word order in verb phrases is set, meaning the order of the auxiliary and main verbs cannot be rearranged. It wouldn’t make sense to say, “Denise have should saved a piece of dessert, knowing she be would late.” The only time an auxiliary verb can be moved is when a question is posed, such as “Should Denise have saved a piece of dessert?” When posing a question, the auxiliary verb always precedes the subject.

Identifying parts of the Verb Phrase

In the sentence, “My friend may have been drinking liquor,” there are three auxiliary verbs.                                                                                                            

  • May is a referred to as a modal, which must be followed by the base form, have.
  • Have indicates the tense is perfect, and must be followed by a past participle, been.
  • Been – or any form of “be” – when it is followed by a present participle, as in drinking from the example above, indicates the tense is progressive.

Final Thoughts on Auxiliary Verbs

As discussed on Writing Center Underground last week, when speaking, it’s common to incorrectly enunciate a few of our auxiliary verb phrases.

I should of told him sooner.
I might of won if the contest wasn’t fixed.
We could of stayed home.
I could of been a contender!

In each of these examples, “of” takes the place of “have,” which is the correct auxiliary. The word “of” is a preposition and not an auxiliary verb. However, it’s become so common in speech that it has begun to find its way into written discourse. Take care when writing to make sure you are using the correct form.

New Year’s Writing Resolutions



Happy New Year!

To get the New Year off to a new start, unlearning bad writing habits is as important as learning new writing habits. Below is a list of some of the most common usage errors and why you should unlearn them before that next paper is due.

What’s wrong with the following sentences?

I should of taken the dog out.

I could of taken him out this morning.

I would of taken him out, but I overslept.

What’s wrong with these sentences? Each one has the same error.

should have taken the dog out.
I could have taken him out this morning.
would have taken him out, but I overslept.

These similar errors are a direct result of how we speak, but speaking does not always transfer to proper grammar. The spoken form could be very different than the written form. We typically “hear” should of, could of, would of, but the correct written form is should have, could have, would have.

Which of the following do you really mean?

I could care less.

I couldn’t care less.

If you mean you care so little that you actually could not care any less than you already care, then you couldn’t care less. However, if you could care less, you actually do care a little bit, which is not what a speaker usually intends. So “I could care less,” isn’t really logical, though it is used quite often.

Which is correct?

I love you, irregardless of your faults.

I love you, regardless of your faults.

The correct answer is “regardless.” There would never be any instance where you would use the word “irregardless,” because it isn’t a word. Rumor has it the use of irregardless was formed by combining irrespective and regardless, two words with similar meanings.

Which spelling is correct?

I was supposed to go to work today.

I was suppose to go to work today.

For this usage, supposed is correct. “Suppose” is indeed a word, meaning to assume or consider, such as, “I suppose you are right.”

Which sentence is correct?

For all intensive purposes, I have retired.

For all intents and purposes, I have retired.

In student papers, this error is more common than you would think. The second sentence is correct. “Intensive” means a high concentration of a specific quality or element. It’s obviously a word, but using it in this way is, for all intents and purposes, incorrect.

This is one that might pop up in a narrative essay. Which is correct?

I would like to purchase a matching chester drawers.

I would like to purchase a matching chest of drawers.

Forget about how you say it, but consider the words. What is a “chester”? Other than a city in England and Pennsylvania, or maybe a man’s first name, a chester has no meaning. The correct answer is chest of drawers.

To disburse or disperse? That is the question. But what is the answer?

To disburse means to distribute money, to pay out expenditures.

Disperse means to scatter. I suppose you could disperse a stack of $100 bills off a building, but unless you’re rich, probably not likely.

The lawyer will disburse the funds to each surviving heir.

Police dispersed the crowd.

To remember the difference, disburse – with a u – relates to money. U need money.

[Note: Disburse‘s corresponding noun is disbursement, not disbursal. Disperse‘s corresponding noun is dispersal, not dispersement (grammarist.com).]
This is a very short list of a few bad writing habits to break to set you on the write coarse for the New Year. I mean right course.

Or did I? 😉