Writing Instruction Tutorial



An outline helps students with their writing. However, it does not work out a paper in its entirety. An outline should never be the paper or repeat the paper line by line. An outline serves as a plan for writing and may assist students with understanding reading material. While an outline may be formal or informal, it serves several important purposes:

  1. It helps students to stay focused on the subject.
  2. It helps students to develop ideas.
  3. It helps students to organize ideas.

Among the different types of outlines are the jotted outline, topic outline, sentence outline, paragraph outline, and bubble outline or its variation tree-branch outline. This site will focus attention on the topic, sentence and bubble outlines, which are the most commonly used.

The jotted outline, although the simplest, still requires following certain form requirements. Jotted headings must be grammatically parallel, structurally equal, and effectively balanced. The logical relations between headings should always be clear. The easy format is appropriate for short papers. As with all outlines, the thesis must be prominent at top. Like a list, the jotted outline numbers each main heading in sequence followed by a few pertinent supporting elements.

Jotted Outline Example

Cigarette Cool?

Thesis: Despite the "cool" factor, we must admit that cigarettes are harmful.

  1. Social benefits - make you feel accepted, give you something to do, and make you feel grown-up.
  2. Economic benefits - support a major industry, provide jobs, and contribute to other related industries, like advertising in different media.
  3. Psychological hazards - control you, take away your independence, and make you a follower rather than a leader.
  4. Physical hazards - pose a risk to your heart and lungs and shorten your life expectancy.

This outline is easily converted into an essay. The major points are succinctly stated with subordinate elements in abbreviated form following each heading. The main headings and the lesser ones follow parallel structure. Each heading contains a noun and an adjective. "Benefits" and "hazards" are the nouns and "social," "economic," "psychological" and "physical" are the adjectives that are part of the main headings. Lesser elements are also in parallel form, for example the verbs "make," "give" and "make."

One purpose of the paragraph outline is to break down difficult reading material — a complex essay or a chapter in a textbook. Students may better understand the material by constructing the paragraph outline. The format begins with the thesis. A general heading should be formulated for the first section. After the general heading, topic sentences for each paragraph are listed in the order in which they occur in the essay.

Paragraph Outline Example

Conductors and Critics

Thesis: Conductors and critics are often viewed as inhibiting music by musicians.

  1. Conductors are capricious figures, either hams or tyrants.

    1. The musician views the conductor as an egomaniac with a flair for the dramatic.
    2. The role of the conductor creates these emotions in the musicians, for he must control and direct the many specialists under him.
    3. Musicians resent the credit given to the conductor, his more lucrative salary and his celebrity.
    4. The conductor sees his instrumentalists as lazy and difficult, like children who need discipline.
  2. Besides the conductor, the musician, especially the soloist, sees the critic as equally suspect.

    1. The critic has tremendous power, capable of influencing an audience and ruining a career.
    2. Musicians often view the critic as a "frustrated" performer although when the critic "attacks" a rival, he is embraced.
    3. Both the conductor and critic are considered superior to the music historian or musicologist.

See essay: Joseph Pensman. "Classical Music and the Status Game," Transaction, 4, 9 (September 1967), 55-59.

Longer, more complex writing assignments are better served by the topic and sentence outlines. The bubble outline may be helpful for both informal, shorter writing assignments and more formal, technical presentations as a useful visual aid.

An outline is not the paper, nor should the entire paper be written in outline form. It is merely the skeleton that needs flesh put on it to make it come alive. Some writers need to see a concept in visual terms and, therefore, find the bubble outline works best. Other writers like the orderly and concise topic outline. The type of outline to use depends on the nature and purpose of the writing assignment and, to some extent, an individual's personal preference.