How To Write an Outline (Plus Template and Example)

Updated July 21, 2023

An outline is an organized framework for a paper, speech, essay or other document. Students and professionals in a variety of industries may use them to plan and create a project or assignment. Understanding how to create a well-structured and focused outline can allow individuals to organize their thoughts and complete their work effectively.

In this article, we define an outline, describe how to write one in five steps and provide a template and an example.

What is an outline?

An outline is a useful tool to help you organize your thoughts if you have an idea for a project or assignment. Whether you are drafting a speech, writing a novel, or trying to communicate ideas for a book report, an outline is a well-structured document that highlights key points and ideas that you want to convey.

Writing a comprehensive and effective outline requires critical thinking to identify and select key points of your topic. Outlines are high-level documents that you can use to start a project or offer important insight. For these reasons, all varieties of organizations and institutions work with outlines. They're particularly important if you specialize in communications or any field in which communication is a priority.

Related: What Is Strategic Planning? Definition, Techniques and Examples

How to write an outline

Here's a list of steps you can follow to create a cohesive outline:

1. Plan your outline

To begin to plan your outline, decide what style and format you want to use. Consider whether you want it to be handwritten or digital and if you want it to be decimal or alphanumeric. Decimal outlines are effective for showing relationships between the main points and sub-topics, while alphanumeric outlines give you a simple way to frame ideas and categorize supporting topics.

You may also decide to use numbers of Roman numerals in an alpha-numeric outline or vice versa. Once you have an idea of what kind of outline you want, you can make decisions about things like sentence structure. Some people prefer to work in full sentences, while others prefer a more concise bullet point that records and organizes your ideas clearly. Finally, consider what you want to say. Consider the topic and main goals, and brainstorm ideas prior to writing your outline.

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2. Write a thesis statement and conceptualize the main ideas

Once you've completed the initial planning, you can move on to writing a thesis statement for your project. This statement is the basis for your title and the ideas listed in the document.

It's important to craft your thesis statement carefully because, if you're writing a speech or an essay, this is likely going to be the thesis statement you use in the finished product to deliver your ideas to the public. You can also use an outline to plan a cover letter, make a presentation or craft a resume. Whether you just create one for the purposes of outlining a business idea or personal goal, having a clear idea of the most important parts of your message is essential for creating an outline.

Related: How to Write a Thesis Statement (With Examples)

3. Group ideas into categories

From the thesis statement, you can identify some main ideas for your outline and begin to brainstorm additional relevant details or questions. Group ideas and support into broad categories, where it makes sense for them to go together. This results in a rough outline that has ideas listed with supporting topics underneath or in a visual cloud diagram, which is a data structure showing the relationship between ideas and supporting topics.

Related: FAQ: What Is an Outline Used For?

4. Organize the outline

Organize your outline into an alphanumeric or decimal format, based on your preference and the information you want to include. Start with the main idea and subsequent supporting topics, then move on to the first supporting idea, the second supporting idea and so on. It's important for your outline to be easy to understand and flexible if you decide you want to add or remove information in the future.

Related: How To Write a Research Paper Outline (With Examples and Tips)

5. Conclude

End with a conclusion that frames your main idea in the context of your supporting ideas. Create a conclusion section of your outline that summarizes and synthesizes the information listed throughout the outline into bullet points. It's important that your conclusion support your thesis and addresses your initial argument.

Related: How To Write a Conclusion (With Tips and Examples)

Outline template

Here's a decimal outline template for you to reference:

[A title derived from a strong thesis statement]

1. [Idea #1: Main Idea]

1.1 [Support for main idea]

1.2 [Support for main idea 2]

1.3 [Support for main idea 3]

2. [Idea #2: Topic Highlight]

2.1 [Support for topic highlight]

2.2 [Support for topic highlight 2]

2.3 [Support for topic highlight 3]

3. [Idea #3: Topic Highlight]

3.1 [Support for topic highlight]

3.2 [Support for topic highlight 2]

3.3 [Support for topic highlight 3]

4. [Conclusion]

4.1 [Summarize support for conclusion]

4.2 [Summarize support for conclusion 2]

4.3 [Summarize support for conclusion 3]

Download Outline Template

To upload the template into Google Docs, go to File > Open > and select the correct downloaded file.

Related: How To Write an Action Plan (With Template and Example)

Example of an outline

Below is an example of an outline for the topic of outlines:

What Is an Outline? (And Why It's Important)

1. What is an outline?

  • 1.1 An outline helps people communicate better

  • 1.2 An outline provides a framework of main points that must be communicated

2. Name skills needed for creating an outline:

  • 2.2 Critical thinking

  • 2.3 Adherence to format

  • 2.4 Ability to communicate briefly

3. An outline helps people communicate better

4. All kinds of organizations use outlines to communicate

  • 4.1 Universities

  • 4.2 Corporations

  • 4.3 Political campaigns

5. Include research on outlines and communication

  • 5.1 An outline provides a communication framework

6. Outlines convey main ideas

  • 6.1 They are easily readable at a glance

7. Outlines are a critical communication tool

  • 7.1 They offer a comprehensive, structured framework for communication

  • 7.2 They're easy to understand and digest quickly

  • 7.3 They help people convey key points when communication

  • 7.4 They're helpful for a variety of projects


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