Outline & Reverse Outline

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

Reverse Outline – for Reading

Outlines allow you to work with all of the information in the text in “shorthand” form to see patterns of organization, idea relationships, and/or idea development. An outline categorizes groups of ideas and differentiates between main and supporting ideas. An outline differs from a concept map in that it shows the linear order of ideas in the text.

Outlining is an important reading, writing, and analyzing strategy. It helps you identify and recall main ideas and supporting details and also become aware of the way in which groups of ideas relate and lead into one another.

After you read, doing a reverse outline can help you remember idea relationships within the text. It’s easier to recall “two reasons” or “four points of contrast” and then fill in the specifics than it is to recall each item separately, without considering how it fits into an overall plan.

Reverse outlines can also help you analyze a text. For example, if an outline of an article on sloppy vs. neat people looked like the one below, you might realize that the author intended to influence your feelings by providing more negative information about sloppy people.

How to do a Reverse Outline

Main Idea: Readers use reverse outlines to understand and evaluate a text
You can put the main idea of the whole text at the start to keep it prominent, like this.

I. Read the text and jot down the ideas of each paragraph in as few words as possible.

A. If a paragraph does not have a main idea, identify its function.

1. example
2. description
3. definition
4. effect
5. etc….

II. Review your list of main ideas/functions and ask/answer the following questions.

A. Do all ideas in the list relate to the text’s main idea?

B. Are there multiple instances of an idea and, if so, what does that mean? (e.g. really important idea? need to edit repetitiveness?)

C. Do the ideas logically link with each other?

D. Is the reasoning sound? (e.g., no logical errors, no inappropriate language use intended to sway a reader emotionally instead of logically)

E. Do some paragraphs contain too many ideas?

III. Use a reverse outline to identify, understand, and evaluate ideas—to link ideas to your own background and react, apply, analyze, and synthesize them.

IV. Use a reverse outline to evaluate your own writing in order to move it from draft to more final version. Many websites offer fuller discussions of this use of a reverse outline.

A. Reverse Outline – Duke University Writing Studio

B. Reverse Outlines – University of Wisconsin Madison, Writing Center

C. Reverse Outlines – Explorations of Style blog about academic writing

If you’re having trouble distinguishing major supporting ideas from more minor details in a piece of writing, here’s a useful list of words/phrases that often signal major ideas: [1]

One For one thing Moreover
First (of all) Also Further
Second(ly) Another Furthermore
Third(ly) Next Last(ly)
To begin with In addition Final(ly)

Outline – 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 and signal word list 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