How To Write an Outline

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated August 20, 2021 | Published February 25, 2020

Updated August 20, 2021

Published February 25, 2020

An outline is an organized framework for a paper, speech, essay or other document. Whether you’re a student or seasoned professional, you can benefit from understanding how to create a well-structured and focused outline. In this article, we discuss how to organize your thoughts and create an outline.

What is an outline?

When you have ideas you need to communicate, an outline is a useful tool to help you organize your thoughts. 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 need to convey.

Writing a comprehensive and effective outline requires critical thinking to identify and select key points of your topic. It also requires adherence to format and strategic brevity. Outlines are high-level documents that typically kick off a project or offer important insight. For these reasons, all varieties of organizations and institutions work with outlines. They are specifically important for people who specialize in communications, or any field where communication is highly prioritized.

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

How to write an outline

Below are the steps to creating a cohesive outline:

  1. Plan your outline.

  2. Write a thesis statement and conceptualize main ideas.

  3. Group ideas into categories.

  4. Organize outline.

  5. Conclude.

Plan your outline

Planning your outline is a broad process that has a few steps in itself. First, you need to decide what kind of outline you want. Here are some questions to consider:

  • Do you want it to be handwritten or digital?

  • Decimal or alphanumeric?

Decimal outlines are good 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. Despite that small distinction, what you choose is largely up to you and your preferences. 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 simply communicates ideas. Choose which works best to communicate your points.

Finally, consider what it is you want to say. Think about the topic and main goals, and brainstorm ideas prior to writing your outline.

Write a thesis statement and conceptualize main ideas

Once you've completed the initial planning, it's time to move on to writing a thesis statement for your project. This statement will be the basis for your title and ideas outlines in the document. You should skillfully craft a thesis statement because, if you are 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. However, even if you just craft it for the purposes of outlining, having a clear idea of the most important parts of your message is essential for creating an outline.

Group ideas into categories

From the thesis statement, you should pull out some main ideas for your outline and think about additional support for them. Group ideas and support into broad categories, where it makes sense they go together. This results in a rough outline that has ideas listed with supporting topics underneath or in a visual cloud diagram, or data structure showing the relationship between ideas and supporting topics.

Related: How To Write a Meeting Agenda: Tips, Template and Sample

Organize outline

Organize your outline into an alphanumeric or decimal format, based on your preference. Start with the main idea and subsequent supporting topics, then move on to the first supporting idea, the second supporting idea and so on.


End with a conclusion that frames your main idea in the context of your supporting ideas. Create a conclusion section of your outline that operates the same as other sections but summarizes and synthesizes the information throughout the outline into bullet points that support your thesis.

Outline template

Below is an alphanumeric outline template:

[A title derived from a strong thesis statement]

  1. [Idea #1: Main Idea]

  2. [Support for main idea]

    1. Subsequent idea support

    2. Subsequent idea support

  3. [Support for main idea 2]

  4. [Support for main idea 3]

  5. [Idea #2: Topic Highlight]

  6. [Support for topic highlight]

  7. [Support for topic highlight 2]

  8. [Support for topic highlight 3]

  9. [Idea #3: Topic Highlight]

  10. [Support for topic highlight]

  11. [Support for topic highlight 2]

  12. [Support for topic highlight 3]

  13. [Conclusion]

  14. [Summarize support for conclusion]

  15. [Summarize support for conclusion 2]

  16. [Summarize support for conclusion 3]

Below is an example of a decimal template:

[A title derived from a strong thesis statement]

1. [Idea #1: Main Idea]

1.1 [Support for main idea]

  • Subsequent idea support

  • Subsequent idea support

    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]

Related: How To Write an Action Plan To Help You Achieve Your Goals

Example of an outline

Below is an example of an outline for the topic 'What is an Outline? (And Why It's Important)':

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

  1. What is an outline?

  2. An outline helps people communicate better

  3. An outline provides a framework of main points that must be communicated

  4. Name skills needed for creating an outline:

    1. Critical thinking

    2. Adherence to format

    3. Ability to communicate briefly

  5. An outline helps people communicate better

  6. All kinds of organizations use outlines to communicate

    1. Universities

    2. Corporations

    3. Political campaigns

  7. Include research on outlines and communication

  8. An outline provides a communication framework

  9. Outlines convey main ideas

  10. They are easily readable at a glance

  11. Outlines are a critical communication tool

  12. They offer a comprehensive, structured framework for communication

  13. They are easy to understand and digest quickly

  14. They help people convey key points when communication

  15. They are helpful for a variety of projects

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