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Outlining is the process of laying out the main ideas, key concepts, supporting details, and evidence to be included in the paper. An outline also determines the order in which these pieces will be presented.
You may have created a preliminary outline while prewriting and initially examining the research, but an outline at this step of the writing process begins to exclude unnecessary information, choose specific pieces of the research to integrate and cite, and--most importantly--set the logical order for each of the main ideas in the construction of your overall analysis of the topic.
There are many different types of outlines, some more visual than others. You will find several options included here, but you may also want to create your own freeform outline. While the formats differ, the general use of all outlines is the same.
Thesis → key main ideas connected to thesis → details related to each of these main ideas (sub-points) → the evidence and analysis of this evidence
The number of sub-points for each main idea depends on the scope of your overall research. Below you will find sample outlines with descriptions for how they can be used. Some outlines provide more room for elaboration than others; but remember, you don't need to write much in the blank spaces.
Alphanumeric Outline: The most formal of outlines, the alphanumeric outline, is formatted almost like a list. As its name suggests, it uses numbers and letters to structure different levels of information.
Web Outline: The web outline places the thesis in the center and organizes the information from inside out. This format appeals to a more visual writer but is not sequential. Because the order in which the main points are presented are not obvious, numbering the circles can help organize further.
Tree Outline: Tree outlines are similar to webs but are organized from top to bottom and left to right. This outline is ideal for tracing the development of a concept or a chronology. The evidence and analysis boxes are limited for space, so it is best to include the source, relevant page or paragraph numbers for the evidence, and key words for the analysis.
Once the outline is complete, the next step is to begin drafting. While the outline provides a road map for the direction of your paper, it does not necessarily establish the exact number or distinct breaks of paragraphs. As you begin to write, the amount of information and analysis you include will shape the length of each paragraph. You may need to elaborate on some points more than others.
If you don't feel ready to begin writing just yet, try further outlining by drafting the topic sentences for each paragraph. The topic sentence map allows you to develop the main points and support into topic sentences that capture the focus of each paragraph and the connection to the thesis. Including a transition or transitional phrase will also demonstrate to the reader why and how one idea logically connects to or builds on another.
The rule of thumb is to maintain a balance of analysis (claims) and evidence (sources). A strategy for monitoring this balance is to label, sentence by sentence, the purpose of each sentence. Ask yourself, is this sentence an explanation or presentation of source material (evidence) or is it my commentary on that piece of evidence (analysis)? Once you have marked all sentences, the result will help you recognize if you've maintained a balance.