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What Are the Benefits of Using an Outline When Writing?

by Natalie Smith

An outline is a visual way to look at the organization of your paper. When most students think of making an outline for a paper, they think of prewriting. Although outlines are very useful for organizing your thoughts during the prewriting phase of the assignment, they can also be used to help organize your research or to help you clarify a topic for an instructor's approval.

Outlines for Prewriting

Outlines are beneficial during the prewriting phase of the assignment because they help the writer organize their thoughts. During this stage, the writer keeps in mind their audience, thesis and purpose and then jots down the key points they believe will support their argument most effectively. This preliminary outline offers a basis for the writer to begin researching and drafting. The major points in the outline can be reorganized, added to, or deleted as the writer begins the drafting process.

Formal Outlines

The essay assignment may include a formal outline. There are several possible benefits to a formal outline. One benefit is that the formal outline provides the reader with a visual reference of your thesis and your main points and subpoints. These outlines also allow a professor or instructor to check your paper for clarity and organization. Finally, a formal outline can help to guide the writer as they draft the paper. This type of outline usually begins with the thesis statement and then continues with the main points written underneath, with the subpoints written out underneath the main point to which they correspond.

Outlines for Research

Research outlines are helpful for organizing the various sources that you have encountered during the research phase of the assignment. This type of outline helps the writer uncover what they already know about their topic and discover which areas need more research. These outlines tend to be more fluid than outlines meant for prewriting or formal outlines. The most important aspect of these outlines is getting the information about each source down on paper. Then, the various facts or points are organized into a formal outline that the writer can use when drafting their paper.

Organizing the Outline

Formal outlines and any outlines that are meant to be turned in may have an assigned format. The most typical formats include alpha-numeric outlines and decimal outlines. Alpha-numeric outlines and decimal outlines both organize information using a hierarchical system. Alpha-numeric outlines use Roman numerals for chapters or first-level headings, then capital letters for subheadings, then Arabic numerals for main points, then lowercase letters for all subpoints. Decimal outlines are similar, except they use a numbering system with Arabic numerals and decimals. For example, a major heading could be labeled 1, the subheading could be 1.1, the main point could be 1.1.1, and so on. The points or subpoints for either type of outline can be written out in full, parallel sentences, or with just a short phrase.

About the Author

Natalie Smith is a technical writing professor specializing in medical writing localization and food writing. Her work has been published in technical journals, on several prominent cooking and nutrition websites, as well as books and conference proceedings. Smith has won two international research awards for her scholarship in intercultural medical writing, and holds a PhD in technical communication and rhetoric.

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