Planning and Outlining
Nature and Purpose of the Outline
An outline is a kind of graphic scheme of the organization of a piece of writing. Writers
can use an outline to help them think through and plan out the development of their writing the
way that an architect uses a blueprint to conceive and plan the construction of a building.
Outlines range from an informal and random listing of points to a formal and systematic use of
numerals and letters to indicate division and classification. The table of contents of a book, for
example, is a form of outline. For shorter, less complex essays, a few informal notes jotted down
(like a shopping list) may constitute sufficient planning. But longer and more analytically
challenging essays generally require a more systematic arrangement of the various parts, starting
with the thesis statement and followed by a specification of the main supporting points for the
thesis and the evidence for each of the supporting points.. Regardless of the degree of formality,
however, an outline should represent a visual and conceptual design of an essay based on logical
thinking and clear classification.
An outline evolves more than it is created. It is primarily a means to an end, and seldom
is it ever finished. Ultimately, the development of the essay becomes the priority, and the outline,
having served its purpose, is discarded or filed away along with the research notes. In essence, it
is more important to understand the evolution of the outline than to be preoccupied with it as a
finished product. In any event, outlining calls upon the writer to perform the following five
functions in the planning stage of the pre-writing process.
Brainstorm: List the range of ideas to be included in the essay. The outline resembles a shopping
list at this point. Some ideas will eventually be discarded as the essay becomes more focused.
The evolution of the outline is inevitably tied to the development of the thesis. The more specific 2
the thesis statement becomes, the more clear and coherent the direction of the body of the essay
Categorize: Group related ideas together. Do the ideas fall into one of the conventional
approaches to thinking about an issue: cause-effect, problem-solution, comparison-contrast,
explanation-illustration, definition, process analysis, division and classification? Determine
coordination and subordination of ideas; that is, distinguish between main ideas to support the
thesis and detailed evidence elaborating on the supporting ideas.
Order: Arrange material in a logical progression: chronological, spatial, general to specific,
abstract to concrete, least important to most important, least preferred to most preferred. What
does the reader need to know first? second? third? The writer endeavours to reconstruct for the
reader his/her own process of discovery without the complications experienced during research.
Emphasize: Order can indicate emphasis. First and last are the emphatic positions in any
presentation. Emphasis can be conveyed through depth of analysis. In other words, the more
space devoted to information, the greater importance it appears to assume. Of course, the
complexity of an idea could also dictate greater space devoted to its explanation. Conceivably, a
more important point can be easier to explain than a lesser important point. The outline helps to
convey a sense of the balance and proportion of the presentation,
Classify: Create main sections and subsections with clear and informative headings to define the
boundaries and relationships between facts and ideas. The formal outline begins to take shape
and labeling becomes necessary to identify levels of coordination and subordination. A formal
outline must adhere to a consistent form. 3
The Form of the Outline
For the most part, an essay outline is meant to serve the concerns of the writer and
seldom will a reader ever examine it. Occasionally, a writer will be asked to submit an outline
formally, usually as part of a university essay assignment or as a prelude to professional
publication. Publishers will ask an author for an outline treatment of a proposed work in order to
determine if the project is viable and if the writer has the capacity and vision necessary to
complete it successful. Accordingly, a formal outline can tell the reader much about the direction
of the writing project.
Formal outlines can be written in two ways. The topic outline expresses facts and ideas
through words and phrases arranged in point form