Outlining is a useful skill for both reading and writing. Outlines provide a brief “frame” or overview of ideas in a text. They show the relationships among those ideas, as similar ideas are on similar levels. At a glance, outlines allow you to see if all major supporting ideas relate to the overall main idea. They also distinguish between major supporting ideas and more minor examples and details. Outlines show the conceptual or idea structure of a text.


There are two ways in which to use outlines:

  1. as a way to understand, recall, react to, and analyze a text you read—this is called a reverse outline
  2. as a prewriting strategy for creating your own text/essay, as it’s often easier to develop ideas in brief form to create the essay’s idea framework first, before you fill that framework in with examples and details

Outlining to Develop Ideas for Writing

Main Idea: Writers use Outlines to Generate and Organize Ideas

I. An outline identifies proposed content and key ideas for a piece of writing.

A. You may identify the point you want to make (your thesis) at the top or start of an outline, as the main idea.

B. Your main supporting points become the main sections of the outline.

1. You can also add details and examples to your supporting points.

a. Details and examples are indented; the level of indentation shows the level of detail.

II. An outline helps you evaluate and make informed decisions about ordering ideas in a piece of writing.

A. You can see if one idea logically leads into the next, or if certain information needs precede other information in order to support a reader’s understanding.

B. You can see if a particular order (e.g., cause and effect, comparison and contrast) might make sense.

III. An outline shows at a glance the amount of information you have for each idea group.

A. You can easily identify where you need to add/subtract information.

B. Amount of information also informs decisions about ordering information.

1. You may want to move from most important (most developed) —> least important (least developed), or vice versa.

Outlining Conventions

  • Each outline should start with a main idea as opposed to a topic, for example: Sloppy and neat people differ in their attitudes and actions. (Not just the topic “sloppy and neat people”)
  • Idea groups should be parallel (same type of information in all of the A,B,C groups; same type of information in all of the 1,2,3 groups)
  • Idea groups should be logically linked, with A leading logically into B, etc.
  • Supporting details and examples in each idea group are differentiated visually by being more indented.

These conventions apply to all outlines that you create to help you recall concepts in a text or prewrite for your own essay, as you can see from the sample outlines above.

try it

Read the following paragraph [1] and outline it, identifying the overall main idea of the paragraph, the main supporting ideas, and details that more fully explain the supporting ideas.  Then check your understanding by comparing it with the sample outline.

One writer spent nine hundred hours over the course of eight years watching the action in singles bars and learning about male-female relationships. Although men think of themselves as the aggressors, says this writer, it is really the women who make the decisions when a courtship is beginning. He has observed that women are the ones who pick a potential mate out of the crowd. They position themselves near the man they have selected and, with a glance or a smile, invite him to make contact. Similarly, as conversation begins, the woman initiates each increasingly intimate stage. Her continuing eye contact, moving closer, and touching the man all signal her permission for him to make further advances. In most case, the woman’s signals are so subtle that the man is only subconsciously aware of them.

[1] outline exercise adapted from Basic Reading and Writing, Lumen Learning. CC BY: Attribution. https://courses.lumenlearning.com/suny-basicreadingwriting/chapter/outcome-summary-skills/  This open educational resource attributes the paragraph, which is part of a SlideShare, as follows:
Major and Minor Details. Authored by: Nicole Keith. Provided by: Guilford Technical Community College. Located athttp://www.slideshare.net/NicholeKeith/major-and-minor-detailsLicenseAll Rights ReservedLicense Terms: SlideShare Terms of Use