Chapter 5: Putting the Pieces Together with a Thesis Statement

5.3 Outlining

Learning Objectives

  • Identify the steps in constructing an outline
  • Construct a topic outline and a sentence outline

Your prewriting activities and readings have helped you gather information for your assignment. The more you sort through the pieces of information you found, the more you will begin to see the connections between them. Patterns and gaps may begin to stand out. But only when you start to organize your ideas will you be able to translate your raw insights into a form that will communicate meaning to your audience.

Tip: Longer papers require more reading and planning than shorter papers do. Most writers discover that the more they know about a topic, the more they can write about it with intelligence and interest.

Organizing Ideas

When you write, you need to organize your ideas in an order that makes sense. The writing you complete in all your courses exposes how analytically and critically your mind works. In some courses, the only direct contact you may have with your instructor is through the assignments you write for the course. You can make a good impression by spending time ordering your ideas.

Order refers to your choice of what to present first, second, third, and so on in your writing. The order you pick closely relates to your purpose for writing that particular assignment. For example, when telling a story, it may be important to first describe the background for the action. Or you may need to first describe a 3-D movie projector or a television studio to help readers visualize the setting and scene. You may want to group your supporting ideas effectively to convince readers that your point of view on an issue is well reasoned and worthy of belief.

In longer pieces of writing, you may organize different parts in different ways so that your purpose stands out clearly and all parts of the essay work together to consistently develop your main point.

Methods of Organizing Writing

The three common methods of organizing writing are chronological order, spatial order, and order of importance, which you learned about in Chapter 4: What Are You Writing, to Whom, and How? You need to keep these methods of organization in mind as you plan how to arrange the information you have gathered in an outline. An outline is a written plan that serves as a skeleton for the paragraphs you write. Later, when you draft paragraphs in the next stage of the writing process, you will add support to create “flesh” and “muscle” for your assignment.

When you write, your goal is not only to complete an assignment but also to write for a specific purpose—perhaps to inform, to explain, to persuade, or a combination of these purposes. Your purpose for writing should always be in the back of your mind, because it will help you decide which pieces of information belong together and how you will order them. In other words, choose the order that will most effectively fit your purpose and support your main point.

Table 5.2: Order versus Purpose shows the connection between order and purpose.

Table 5.2 Order versus Purpose
Order Purpose
Chronological Order
  • To explain the history of an event or a topic
  • To tell a story or relate an experience
  • To explain how to do or make something
  • To explain the steps in a process
Spatial Order
  • To help readers visualize something as you want them to see it
  • To create a main impression using the senses (sight, touch, taste, smell, and sound)
Order of Importance
  • To persuade or convince
  • To rank items by their importance, benefit, or significance

Writing an Outline

For an essay question on a test or a brief oral presentation in class, all you may need to prepare is a short, informal outline in which you jot down key ideas in the order you will present them. This kind of outline reminds you to stay focused in a stressful situation and to include all the good ideas that help you explain or prove your point. For a longer assignment, like an essay or a research paper, many instructors will require you to submit a formal outline before writing a major paper as a way of making sure you are on the right track and are working in an organized manner. The expectation is you will build your paper based on the framework created by the outline.

When creating outlines, writers generally go through three stages: a scratch outline, an informal or topic outline, and a formal or sentence outline. The scratch outline is basically generated by taking what you have come up with in your freewriting process and organizing the information into a structure that is easy for you to understand and follow (for example, a mind map or hierarchical outline). An informal outline goes a step further and adds topic sentences, a thesis, and some preliminary information you have found through research. A formal outline is a detailed guide that shows how all your supporting ideas relate to each other. It helps you distinguish between ideas that are of equal importance and ones that are of lesser importance. If your instructor asks you to submit an outline for approval, you will want to hand in one that is more formal and structured. The more information you provide for your instructor, the better he or she will be able to see the direction in which you plan to go for your discussion and give you better feedback.

Tip: Instructors may also require you to submit an outline with your final draft to check the direction and logic of the assignment. If you are required to submit an outline with the final draft of a paper, remember to revise it to reflect any changes you made while writing the paper.

There are two types of formal outlines: the topic outline and the sentence outline. You format both types of formal outlines in the same way.

  • Place your introduction and thesis statement at the beginning, under Roman numeral I.
  • Use Roman numerals (II, III, IV, V, etc.) to identify main points that develop the thesis statement.
  • Use capital letters (A, B, C, D, etc.) to divide your main points into parts.
  • Use Arabic numerals (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, etc.) if you need to subdivide any As, Bs, or Cs into smaller parts.
  • End with the final Roman numeral expressing your idea for your conclusion.

Here is what the skeleton of a traditional formal outline looks like. The indention helps clarify how the ideas are related.

  1. Introduction → Thesis statement
  2. Main point 1becomes the topic sentence of body paragraph 1
    • Supporting detail →becomes a support sentence of body paragraph 1
      • Subpoint
      • Subpoint
    • Supporting detail
      • Subpoint
      • Subpoint
    • Supporting detail
      • Subpoint
      • Subpoint
  3. Main point 2becomes the topic sentence of body paragraph 2 [same use of subpoints as with Main point 1]
    • Supporting detail
    • Supporting detail
    • Supporting detail
  4. Main point 3becomes the topic sentence of body paragraph 3[same use of subpoints as with Main points 1&2]
    • Supporting detail
    • Supporting detail
    • Supporting detail
  5. Conclusion
Tip: In an outline, any supporting detail can be developed with subpoints. For simplicity, the model shows subpoints only under the first main point.
Tip: Formal outlines are often quite rigid in their organization. As many instructors will specify, you cannot subdivide one point if it is only one part. For example, for every Roman numeral I, there needs to be an A. For every A, there must be a B. For every Arabic numeral 1, there must be a 2. See for yourself on the sample outlines that follow.

Constructing Informal or Topic Outlines An informal topic outline is the same as a sentence outline except you use words or phrases instead of complete sentences. Words and phrases keep the outline short and easier to comprehend. All the headings, however, must be written in parallel structure.

Here is the informal topic outline that Mariah constructed for the essay she is developing. Her purpose is to inform, and her audience is a general audience of her fellow college students. Notice how Mariah begins with her thesis statement. She then arranges her main points and supporting details in outline form using short phrases in parallel grammatical structure.

  1. Introduction
    • Thesis statement: Everyone wants the newest and the best digital technology, but the choices are many, and the specifications are often confusing.
  2. E-book readers and the way that people read
    1. Books easy to access and carry around
      1. Electronic downloads
      2. Storage in memory for hundreds of books
    2. An expanding market
      1. E-book readers from booksellers
      2. E-book readers from electronics and computer companies
    3. Limitations of current e-book readers
      1. Incompatible features from one brand to the next
      2. Borrowing and sharing e-books
  3. Film cameras replaced by digital cameras
    1. Three types of digital cameras
      1. Compact digital cameras
      2. Single lens reflex cameras, or SLRs
      3. Cameras that combine the best features of both
    2. The confusing “megapixel wars”
    3. The zoom lens battle
  4. The confusing choice among televisions
    1. 1080p vs. 768p
    2. Plasma screens vs. LCDs
    3. Home media centres
  5. Conclusion
    • How to be a wise consumer

Writing at Work

Word processing programs generally have an automatic numbering feature that can be used to prepare outlines. This feature automatically sets indents and lets you use the tab key to arrange information just as you would in an outline. Although in business this style might be acceptable, in college or university your instructor might have different requirements. Teach yourself how to customize the levels of outline numbering in your word processing program to fit your instructor’s preferences.

Self-Practice Exercise 5.8

H5P: Creating a Topic Outline

The purpose of an outline for your essay is to collect your ideas and organize them in a logical order. For many people, this doesn’t need to be a formal process to be helpful. However, some instructors will require a more traditionally structured outline, so we will practice that skill today.

Take a moment to review the structure outlined in Mariah’s outline so that you can understand the structure that is expected. Feel free to use her outline as a model for your own work.

The first thing to consider is how you will organize your essay. Chronological order — where points follow the passage of time — is best for explaining how to undertake something. Spatial order — where points follow movement through space — is best for descriptive, sensory writing. And order of importance — where you decide the order based on significance — is good for persuasive writing. Which type of structure makes the most sense for your essay?

Following the model above, take a first run at outlining your essay. We will have lots of time to revise this work over the next few exercises, so just do your best to be clear and logical in the development of your ideas.

Checklist 5.2: Writing an Effective Topic Outline

This checklist can help you write an effective topic outline for your assignment. It will also help you discover where you may need to do additional reading or prewriting.

H5P: Outlining Checklist

  1. Do I have a controlling idea that guides the development of the entire piece of writing?
  2. Do I have three or more main points that I want to make in this piece of writing? Does each main point connect to my controlling idea?
  3. Is my outline in the best order—chronological order, spatial order, or order of importance—for me to present my main points? Will this order help me get my main point across?
  4. Do I have supporting details that will help me inform, explain, or prove my main points?
  5. Do I need to add more support? If so, where?
  6. Do I need to make any adjustments in my working thesis statement before I consider it the final version?

Self-Practice Exercise 5.9

H5P: Supporting Details

Review your outline and decide what your three strongest points are. They should be specific and directly, clearly related to the thesis statement. Make note of those points below.

These points will become topic sentences for the body paragraphs of your essay. Take a run at writing those topic sentences now. Remember that nothing is set in stone, and you will be able to revise your work again in the next exercise.

Constructing Formal or Sentence Outlines

A sentence outline is the same as a topic outline except you use complete sentences instead of words or phrases. Complete sentences create clarity and can advance you one step closer to a draft in the writing process.

Here is the formal sentence outline that Mariah constructed for the essay she is developing.

  1. Introduction
    • Thesis statement: Everyone wants the newest and the best digital technology, but the choices are many, and the specifications are often confusing.
  2. E-book readers and the way that people read.
    1. E-book readers make books easy to access and to carry
      1. Books can be downloaded electronically.
      2. Devices can store hundreds of books in memory.
    2. The market expands as a variety of companies enter it.
      1. Booksellers sell their own e-book readers.
      2. Electronics and computer companies also sell e-book readers.
    3. Current e-book readers have significant limitations.
      1. The devices are owned by different brands and may not be compatible.
      2. Few programs have been made to fit the other way Americans read: by borrowing books from libraries.
  3. Digital cameras have almost totally replaced by film cameras.
    1. The first major choice is the type of digital camera.
      1. Compactible digital cameras are light by have fewer megapixels.
      2. Single lens reflex cameras, or SLRs, may be large and heavy but can be sued for many functions.
      3. Some cameras combine the best features of compacts an SLRs.
    2. Choosing the camera type involves the confusing “megapixel wars.”
    3. The zoom lens battle also determines the camera you will buy.
  4. Nothing is more confusing to me than choosing among televisions
    1. In the resolution wars, what are the benefits of 1080p and 768p?
    2. In the screen-size war, what do plasma screens and LCD screens offer?
    3. Does every home really need a media centre?
  5. Conclusion
    • The solution for many people should be to avoid buying on impulse. Consumers should think about what they really need, not what is advertised.
Tip: The information compiled under each Roman numeral will become a paragraph in your final paper. Mariah’s outline follows the standard five-paragraph essay arrangement, but longer essays will require more paragraphs and thus more Roman numerals. If you think that a paragraph might become too long, add an additional paragraph to your outline, renumbering the main points appropriately.
Tip: As you are building on your previously created outlines, avoid saving over the previous version; instead, save the revised outline under a new file name. This way you will still have a copy of the original and any earlier versions in case you want to look back at them.

Writing at Work

PowerPoint presentations, used both in schools and in the workplace, are organized in a way very similar to formal outlines. PowerPoint presentations often contain information in the form of talking points that the presenter develops with more details and examples than are contained on the PowerPoint slide.

Self-Practice Exercise 5.10

H5P: Creating a Sentence Outline

Continuing with practicing skills you may need in other classes, we will now flesh out your Topic Outline to become a Sentence Outline.

Once again, it’s a good idea to take a moment to review the structure outlined in Mariah’s outline so that you can understand the structure that is expected. Feel free to use her outline as a model for your own work.

Using your Topic Outline as a basis, work to flesh out that outline to create the more formal Sentence Outline. Students sometimes feel that this step is busy work, but if you take your time with it, you will be most of the way to your formal essay draft.

Key Takeaways

  • Writers must put their ideas in order so the assignment makes sense. The most common orders are chronological order, spatial order, and order of importance.
  • After gathering and evaluating the information you found for your essay, the next step is to write a working, or preliminary, thesis statement.
  • The working thesis statement expresses the main idea you want to develop in the entire piece of writing. It can be modified as you continue the writing process.
  • Effective writers prepare a formal outline to organize their main ideas and supporting details in the order they will be presented.
  • A topic outline uses words and phrases to express the ideas.
  • A sentence outline uses complete sentences to express the ideas.
  • The writer’s thesis statement begins the outline, and the outline ends with suggestions for the concluding paragraph.


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Writing for Success - 1st Canadian H5P Edition Copyright © 2021 by Tara Horkoff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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