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.


5 thoughts on “Outlines: A Blueprint for Success

    1. Hi Erica,
      Yes, each Roman numeral *usually designates one main idea or one paragraph (see below). In a short, 5 paragraph essay, the body paragraphs are usually I, II, and III. (intros and conclusions *usually don’t get a Roman Numeral.) For long papers, you should have a separate Roman numeral for each main idea you will develop.

      When subheadings designate independent paragraphs, such as in long papers, the main headings under which they appear do not represent paragraphs.
      I. Traditional Students
      A. Male
      B. Female
      II. Nontraditional Students
      A. Male
      B. Female

      Good Luck!


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