Creating Reading and Writing Outlines

Once you have generated ideas for your essay, the next step is organizing those ideas. But why do you need to think about the organization of your paper? No matter how original or compelling your ideas are, they will not be appreciated by the reader if these ideas are not organized properly. Readers appreciate it when they can seethe relationship of one part of the text to the next. As a writer, you should strive to achieve coherence in your writing. One of the most common ways you can achieve this is by using an outline.

The word “outline” can be intimidating, especially to students. But if you know that a writer uses an outline for an essay the way an architect uses a blueprint for a building, then you will have an easier time understanding its purpose in the writing process. To better familiarize you with the concept of an outline, can you think of other things you can compare an outline’s purpose to, like in the case of the architect’s blueprint?

Defining an Outline

An outline is a summary that gives the essential features of a text. It shows how the parts of a text are related to one another as parts that are of equal importance, or sections that are subordinate to a main idea.

There are two kinds of outlines: the reading outline and writing outline. A reading outline is used to get the main ideas of a text that is already written. It helps you understand the text’s structure more critically because you will have to find the text’s thesis statement and support. You will better understand how a writer connects and sequences the information in the reading.

Meanwhile, a writing outline is a skeletal version of your essay. It is used as a guide to organize your ideas. It is usually done before you write the first draft of your essay.

Creating a Reading Outline

You might be wondering why you need to learn the skill of outlining reading materials. After all, aren’t these reading assignments already organized? You may be surprised that outlining your reading assignments can be beneficial Outlines help you to better understand the material you are reading, and allow you to better remember the things that you have read. You can even use them as study guides.

A reading outline is highly structured. Below are some steps that you can follow in creating a reading outline:

  1. Read the entire text first. Skim the text afterward. Having an overview of the reading’s content will help you follow its structure better.
  2. Locate the main idea or thesis of the whole essay.
    • Look at the title of the text.
    • Look for heading, if any.
    • Look for information that answers the question, “What is the text talking about?”
  3. Look for key phrases in each paragraph of the essay.
  4. Locate the topic sentence of each paragraph.
  5. Depending on the length of the text, look at the topic sentences and group those with related ideas together. See if they describe a process or are examples.
  6. To logically organize information, the contents of the reading are arranged according to levels. A level refers to the number of ranks in the hierarchy of information in the reading.

    Provide a general group name for each group of topic sentences. These will be the main divisions of your outline, or the first level. Label these with a Roman numeral. The topic sentences will be the subtopics, or the second level. Label these with capital letters.

  7. Evaluate the supporting details provided. These will be the third level of your outline. Label these with Arabic numerals.
  8. Go back to the text after you have finished your outline. Check whether you have followed its sequence closely and that you have not missed any important information.

For your further understanding and study, below is a sample outline.The outline came from a short text entitled “The Spanish Legacy,” written by a local historian named Bonifacio Sibayan. The text talks briefly about how the Spanish influenced Philippine languages and Philippine life in the old times.

Note that a sentence outline was used, so that each point can be succinctly explained. Also note that a couple of the main points contain up to four levels of supporting details. See how each level decreases in topic relevance, and how each level was properly numbered and indented to signal this. Lastly, note that the writing purpose, the reading audience, the tone, the point of view, and the thesis statement were all identified before the outline itself. (Identifying the first four, however, is optional. It is the thesis statement that always needs to be identified.)

Creating a Writing Outline

It is one thing to use an outline to better understand a finished piece of writing by another person, but have you ever thought of using one to better understand and write your own essay? Do you shiver and cringe at the thought of outlining? Do not worry; you are not the only student who dislikes doing it. The thought of planning your own draft is not all that inviting to many. They would rather rough it in the writing, and then fix everything in the end.

But what if you get lost in the middle of writing? Without a proper guide, it is possible that you may never reach the end of your first draft. All that lost time and effort will only get you burning with frustration. When you learn how to create a writing outline, you will understand how outlines can direct drafts, making writing much easier and more manageable. You will also love that feeling of seeing your ideas flow smoothly from point to point, and better appreciate your thesis when it looks cleaner and more coherent as a whole.

A writing outline, again, is basically a skeletal overview of your draft, which contains your fundamental points and the different ideas that support them. In its use, an outline works like a map: it shows you where each of your ideas is placed in your writing; how all of them fit together; and how each leads to the central idea of your writing. It also determines the boundaries of your draft; how much of your subject you will need to cover without lacking or exceeding in details.

When in the process of writing, should an outline be written? Most teachers would recommend you to create an outline before you write the first draft. By using an outline you can sort out all your ideas before you write them down. It will tell you which ideas should come first; which ones are major; which ones are weak and need more clarification or evidence; and which ones should be taken out altogether. It is important to have an outline early on because it will steer your draft in the right direction as you go writing. It will also save you time from problems in content organization and revision, as it already minimizes these before you even start writing your draft.

Though it does not mean that you cannot outline in the middle or at the end of your draft. Some writers outline in the middle of the draft to see where they have gone so far, and where they could still go. Some outline at the end of the,draft to find out what they have discovered while writing, and how they structured their discussion on the subject matter. It all depends on your writing style, on when you think the outline will be useful to you. You can try outlining at different stages of writing your essay, and see what works best for you.

Should the outline be strictly followed all throughout the writing process? Not necessarily. Some writers make outlines to get their minds working and their ideas out there; once they actually get on writing, they will no longer refer to their outlines. Just understand that an outline is a writing aid that will show you how to present your points from start to end, but it should not dictate the form or style you want to use in your writing. The helpfulness of an outline will all be up to you.

Below are the parts of a formal outline. Similar to a reading outline, the main ideas are written beside Roman Numerals. Supporting ideas under each main idea are written beside capital letters and indented. Specific details under each detail are written beside Arabic numbers and are further indented.

Read on below for a list of suggestions in creating your outline. The list can be a model for you to follow for the time being, and then later on you can develop your own guide to outlining.

  • Determine what your purpose is for writing the thesis, who your reading audience is, and what point of view and tone you would like to assume in delivering your message.
  • Begin your outline with a thesis statement. Keep in mind that it should encompass everything in your outline.
  • Review your notes. Remove any idea that does not support your thesis or does not conform to your chosen writing purpose, audience, point of view, and tone. Add in any new ideas as necessary.
  • Group together similar ideas and thoughts.Then name each group with a heading that also serves as a main topic supporting your thesis. Remember that the key to outlining is distinguishing between main ideas and supporting ideas.
  • Label all the main topics with Roman numerals. Note that they will be your outline’s first level. Make sure your main topics are logically sequenced. Identify subtopics and classify them under the correct main topics. Label these subtopics with uppercase letters. Note that they will be your outline’s second level.
  • Identify supporting points (such as illustrations and examples) and classify them under the correct subtopics. Indent and label them with Arabic numbers. Note that they will be your outline’s third level.
  • Identify particular details (such as statistics, quotes, and other secondary information) and classify them under the correct supporting points. Indent and label them with lowercase letters. Note that they will be your outline’s fourth level.
  • Check your outline for unsupported evidence. Omit it, or add in new supporting details as necessary. Re-examine all your main topics, subtopics, supporting points, and particular details to see that they all develop your thesis, and are logically sequenced. Also check that all levels in the outline have parallel wording and grammatical structure.
  • Show your proposed outline to a number of people such as your teacher, your classmates, your friends, or even your family. Get feedback from them on what to improve in your outline.

Different individual styles are used in creating an outline. There are writers who develop rigid, highly-detailed overviews; and there are those who only scratch together informal lists. There are writers who can create fast and short outlines, and there are those who spend time and effort in working out their ideas. Let us narrow down all those styles to name the two kinds of generally accepted outlines: scratch (or topic) outline, and sentence (or formal) outline.

A scratch outline is a simple list of ideas that take the form of words and phrases. A sentence outline uses sentences to define the subject matter. This is similar to the outline previously explained. Scratch outlines are good for their brevity, while sentence outlines are good for their use of specific detail. Do not pressure yourself to stick to one type of outline; again, experiment and choose one to your liking. Just make sure that you are consistent in your choice of outline; mixing both scratch and sentence outlines may be confusing. Though, what you must remember is that there is no one real or right way to outline. Outline only if it will help your writing, and outline in a way that will help you best.