An outline is a way to show the shape of ideas in an essay. It's like a skeleton--the bones (the ideas) are all there, but it needs the flesh (the details of the support). Outlines are very useful tools in shaping information, as they allow you to see, immediately, whether the topic sentence information fits the thesis, where you need less or more information, and how the pieces of information relate to one another.

Here's a sample:

Thesis: Different kinds of people react to standing in line differently according to their personalities, but the vocal complainers, the impatient silent twitchers, and the weaslers all seem to overpower the normal, patient waiter.

I. History of waiting in line

II. Impatient Silent Twitchers

A. Wristwatch checkers

B. Scratchers

C. Jigglers/Squirmers

III. Vocal Complainers

A. Impersonal vocal complainers who talk to the rest of the line in general

1. complain about the slowness of the line

a. slowness of the business people doing the transactions themselves

1. bank tellers
2. store clerks
3. ticket agents

b. slowness of the customers

2. complain about the other line waiters

B. Personal vocal complainers who complain about one or two people near them in line

IV. Weaslers

A. those who pretend to continue interrupted conversations with people near the front

B. those who announce that they're late for a meeting and would you please let them go ahead

C. those who pretend that they've inadvertently taken the wrong place in line

V. Normal, patient waiters

In an outline, the main idea lines (the Roman numeral lines) offer the ideas that will eventually turn into topic sentences in the essay. If you look at the sample, you can see right away that the idea of the history of waiting in line doesn't really relate to the ideas in the thesis (and thus should be edited out for unity's sake).

Also, if you look at the sample, you can immediately see that there are some units of support that are more developed (e.g., vocal complainers) than others (e.g., impatient silent twitchers), which need more details to round them out. An outline shows its idea development by the things that are indented underneath the main ideas.

And you can see as well that the order of the ideas in the support doesn't exactly correspond to the order listed in the thesis. Either the outline or the thesis ideas will need to be ordered slightly differently so that the two can correspond. An outline offers an easy way to see the essay's shape--its idea structure--at a glance.

You can ask the following types of questions in order to assess an outline, in preparation for writing an essay:

  • Does each Roman numeral line relate to the type of thought in the thesis?
  • Does each indented line relate to and specify the line under which it is indented?
  • Does each similar type of line (Roman numeral lines, capital letter lines, etc.) contain similar or parallel information?
  • Does information get more specific as it gets more indented so that there is an overall movement from general to specific?
  • Are there at least two of each type of line to justify the division?
  • Does the order of the Roman numeral lines correspond to the order of ideas in the thesis?

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