Whether you’re creating a research paper, a narrative essay or a presentation, using an outline early in your process can save you time and trouble. You can also increase the quality of your final product by organizing your material.

In the beginning of your process, usually your ideas and the knowledge you’ve gathered about your topic are all whirling around in your head in loose, disorganized ways. At this stage it’s hard to know what to grab and write down, or how to order your major points. Outlining will give you some useful scaffolding on which to build.

And, of course, Microsoft Word, Google Docs, Apple Pages, or Evernote make it easy to create indented or numbered lists. In fact, if you’re having a hard time getting started trying a new tool for outlining can be a great way to entertain yourself. There are tons of free tools and apps out there.

Here are some important points to remember about outlining:

  • It doesn’t take long to create an outline, to add to it or to revise it.
  • As you create your first outline, remember that it’s not set in stone—in fact, the outline itself will give you a sense of what might need to be changed in your organization.
  • Getting all those ideas and bits of research onto paper or screen will also allow you to see the best logical or hierarchical order for your elements.
  • You’ll also be more likely to notice relationships among your points and topics that you might have missed before.

When you’re working in Microsoft Word, you can choose from different outlining templates to get started. Click on the Multi-Level List (Outlining) tab as shown here, and select a template that’s easy to work with:


So how do you create the most useful outline? First, try to get clear on the purpose of your project, the audience you’ll be writing for, and the main idea (thesis). Then follow this process:

  1. List all the major points and topics of your project.
  2. Look at your list and begin your outline by plugging your major topics and points into the “level one” headings. (In classic outline form, this would be the heading set off by Roman numerals as shown below.)
  3. Arrange your “level one” heading points and topics according to their similarity, cause and effect relationships, or other logical connections.
  4. Subdivide the elements under each heading by listing examples or particular points. Move from the general to the specific, using a structure like I, A, 1, a OR 1.0, 1.1, 1.1.1 etc.

Learn More…

You can read more about specific organizational strategies, including Reverse Outlining, that will help you bring up your game.