The Beauty of Outlines

Sally Baggett is a college instructor, writing tutor, proofreader, and writer. Writing is her life. She holds a master’s in literature, teaching basic writing at the college level and tutoring in writing at all levels. She also is a literature instructor, inspiring students to love what they read so that writing about it is more fun. She enjoys cooking with her family and assisting others in achieving their dreams.


Outlines can be tricky things. There are usually a lot of sections, and you might feel like it’s too much work since you have to do so much writing anyway. But don’t let your ambition to write get the best of you.

Outlines are one of the only ways to ensure that your writing process goes smoothly and quickly. If you think through each section beforehand, you save that much more time while composing. Did I mention focus? Without an outline, you risk rambling and wasting time and energy. To keep your writing high quality and efficient, consider adding outlines as a hard and fast rule of your writing process.

Why Outlines?

We’ve already mentioned a few reasons why outlines are important, but let’s go over it in detail. Outlines help us:

  • Organize our thoughts
  • Organize our research
  • Prevent the essay from rambling
  • Write without having to think as much
  • Write faster
  • Discover what we don’t want to write about before putting in a lot of work
  • End on a strong note

Part of the first step of the writing process (prewriting), outlines force us to “think out” our essays before we sit down to write. Now, I’m not saying you can’t free write. Many of my students prefer to sit down and start typing before thinking much about the essay.

Freewriting is one type of brainstorming, and it’s perfectly fine. But it shouldn’t be your final product. In fact, I find that it’s useful to take a freewriting exercise and use it as a guide to create an outline. This is actually called reverse outlining—using a freewriting exercise or rough draft to fill in an outline, revealing any disorganization and flaws in logic.

If you don’t compose anything before filling in an outline, that’s ok too! That’s actually what I prefer to do now that I write a lot. I tell students that after you come up with a thesis, that’s when you can start the outline. This is because the thesis will usually guide the body paragraphs, which in turn drives your research.

The key is to fill in the outline as you do research. This way, your research notes stay organized, and you have a visual of which sources work and which don’t.

If you haven’t picked up on it by now, I am rather fond of outlines! They tend to be the key to very successful essays.

How to Build an Effective Outline

Every teacher has a different version of their favorite outline. That’s because outlines are subject to the writer—there is no specific outline formula that everyone must use. However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a loose structure that most writers find helpful. Let’s take a look at what an outline can contain.

Paper Outline Example

This is the outline formula I share with my students. It’s not perfect, but it’s a place for students to start. This outline is useful for a research paper where you are using a lot of facts (what I call “research items”). You’ll notice that after each “research item,” I included a sub point for analysis. This means that when you write the paper, every quote or example needs a sentence explaining it. You might find it useful to look at different examples of outlines to help you get a feel for what you prefer in an outline. Here is one example from Ashford University, and here is a simpler one from Penn State.  

You probably also noticed I included sentences called “hook” and “zinger.” These two sentences function in complementary ways: the hook grabs the reader’s attention, while the zinger leaves the reader thinking.

Are you starting to see how an outline can focus your writing and end the essay with a strong conclusion?

Note: This is an outline useful mainly for research and persuasive essays. You can tweak this outline to fit any type of writing simply by inserting the type of information you need. Mainly you want to keep the intro and conclusion paragraphs the same but change the content of the body paragraphs. For a narrative essay, for example, your body paragraphs wouldn’t contain “research items” or “analysis.” Instead, they would probably contain “events,” “setting,” and “characters.”

Filling It In

What items you fill in on an outline are really up to you or your teacher. You can be as detailed as filling in every single space, or you can use a bare bones approach by filling in just topic sentences.

Personally, I find it helpful to fill in the items that I struggle with while composing an essay. I don’t want to pause to think about what quote I was going to use or what my main point was in paragraph 3. I want to look at my outline and say, “Oh yeah!” and keep typing.

Therefore, I like to fill in every spot except the minor ones. I usually leave these spots blank:

  • “background information” in the intro
  • “analysis” spots in the body paragraphs
  • “summary of main points” in the conclusion

The other blanks I like to fill in so I can jump right into substantial writing when it comes time to draft the paper.

Will You Use an Outline?

If you’ve never been a fan of outlines, give them another try. I hope this example outline can be a guide for your writing. If you already use outlines, well, I tip my rhetorical hat to you.

Once you start using outlines, you might find that your writing process gets easier and your writing more focused. Whether you write for school or work, an outline can help you achieve the writing you’ve always wanted to have!

After you’ve finished your outline and have begun researching, don’t forget to cite your sources in APA formatMLA format, Harvard referencing, and loads more citation styles using Cite This For Me citation tools!