How to Write an Outline

August 21, 2007

How to Write An Outline: The Purpose of Outline Writing

Filed under: Tutorials — howtowriteanoutline @ 6:18 pm

No matter what sort of document you wish to produce, you’re going to want to know how to write an outline first. Outlines are essential to help you gather your thoughts together and put them into a cohesive flow of ideas starting at point A, and then leading a trail to points B, C, and D.

Whether you’re producing an article, writing a training manual, preparing a public speaking appearance, creating a novel, writing a thesis, term paper, screenplay, or just about any type of document you can think of, success or failure depends solely on your ability to make a clear and obvious presentation of your information. Your goal is to take your reader, or audience on a journey and deliver them to a logical conclusion.

Think of an outline like you would a road map. With a road map, you can pinpoint the most direct route so you can make a bee line from the beginning to your destination. Or you could map out a more scenic route, just to add a few twist and turns to make the journey more interesting. In either case, your map will get you where you want to go without getting lost.

Likewise, when you outline your presentation, you’ll know exactly where to start and where to end, and you’ll know the exact route to get there with either the least amount of trouble, or with a few side points of interests along the way.


How To Write an Outline: The Importance of Outlining

Filed under: Tutorials — howtowriteanoutline @ 6:17 pm

Allow me a few minutes to illustrate why you want to know how to write an outline . . .

When I was a kid, my family would take a yearly trip to Florida. My dad always drove, never used a map, but went entirely on “instinct.” Needless to say, we often got lost and had to do a lot of back tracking. Eventually we’d reach our destination, more exhausted than we should have been, and my parent’s more angry at each other than what would would have made for an enjoyable vacation.

We’d spend the next two weeks soaking up the sun, drinking all the orange juice we could hold, and completely dreading the return trip through what inevitably turned out to be a deja vu in reverse.

Of course my dad loved to “spice” up the trip even more by always buying retreaded tires for the 1,600 mile journey. It never failed that, just when we were the most lost any humans could be, one of the rear retreads would start to come unglued. So just to accentuate the anxiety of hopelessly being in a strange place without a clue, the “thump, thump, thump” of the rubber coming off would help us keep our nerves on end just that much more.

The “thump, thump, thump” would become a “slap, slap, slap” as the pieces became torn up, and grew louder and louder until we couldn’t hear ourselves think. Suddenly, a final crash as the remaining large piece hit the undercarriage of the car, and then . . . dead silence.

I remember the rush that silence gave me. A full ten seconds of sheer and utter peace!

Then of course my mom would start yelling at my father in French, and the silence was broken for the next 50 miles, or until the next retread started coming off.

I won’t get into what happened after we got to Florida, and all the great site seeing drives we took. I just wished I had paid attention. or wrote everything down, because now I’d be able to make a fortune selling road maps to all the dead end streets in the state of Florida my dad found!

I hope you found my little story amusing. I assure you it’s a completely true and accurate account of my family vacations. And it happened the same way every year. The only variations took place when my grandmother came along and then there were two women yelling at my dad in French.

But the point I’m making in all of this is, while I can chuckle about it now, it wasn’t fun then. Had my father used a map and thought out the trip more carefully, we would have had a much more enjoyable time with memories not riddled with the fear of being lost and the anxiety of having our lives in the hands of a man without a plan.

Of course this story is extreme when you compare it to subjecting your readers to an unstructured, illogical article. But on the other hand, your readers will have a much easier way out than I did if you do get them lost and anxious.

They can click off your web page, or close your book and leave you groping along that strange road alone.

Yes dad, I would have if I could have. Sorry.

So have a plan! When you make a presentation, map it out. Learn how to write an outline so you can lead your readers to the destination you wish to take them to without the fear of losing them by getting lost yourself.

How to Write an Outline: The Basics

Filed under: Tutorials — howtowriteanoutline @ 6:16 pm

Learning how to write an outline is a lot like learning how to navigate from the cold northeast to sunny Florida. Map it out well, and you’ll never get lost. You could even work out a little site seeing and still make it to your destination without your nerves getting in a knot.

Some people are born with an amazing sense of direction. I don’t know about you, but I tend to take after my dad on this one. (see previous post). I know where I am, and I know where I’m going. It’s the stuff in between that gets me confused.

This is where a lot of writers go wrong too. They know how to address their argument and they know what their logical conclusion is to be, but when it comes to taking their readers from start to finish, forget about it.

But the truth is, if you know where to begin and where you want to go, you’ve won half the battle.

Write that down!

I’ll use this “How to Write an Outline” discussion as an example to show you what I mean . . .

First, I considered my goal. I want to show you how to write an outline. That’s obvious.

Now where’s my starting point?

If I knew you and had a feel for how much you already understood about outline writing, I could start from where your knowledge leaves off. But I don’t know you, so I have to assume that you may not know anything at all about how to make an outline, thus my logical starting point would be . . .

1. The purpose of writing an outline.

This way I’m sure you’ll understand the reasoning behind using an outline. Let’s call it the Fundamentals of Outline Usage for lack of a better term.

So there’s the starting point. Now where do I want to take you?

How about . . .

4. Advanced Outline Writing

Kind of a general phrase, but it tells me that I want you to know how you can use an outline for mapping out even the most technical presentation. If I present my argument well to this final point, you should know how to write an outline well enough that you won’t have to go anywhere else for further training.

A noble goal indeed!

How to Write an Outline: Adding Elements – Part One

Filed under: Tutorials — howtowriteanoutline @ 6:15 pm

So in our quest to learn how to write an outline, we know where we are and where we want to go. Now we’ll start filling in the spaces where we’re most likely to get lost by adding in pit stops along the route.

Here’s what we have so far . . .

1. The purpose of writing an outline.
4. Advanced Outline Writing

Our starting point and our final destination. Notice the second one is labeled #4. This is because we need to add a few more major points to begin creating the logical map from point 1 to point 4, or our beginning and end points.

Point 1 explains the “why” outline writing is useful. But that just puts you in the right frame of mind. Now we need to drive the point home a little more with . . .

2. The importance of writing an outline.

Points 1 and 2 combined creates the foundation for the entire discussion by laying out the argument that writing and using an outline when you write is useful and important. They give structure and power to what will come next, which would logically be . . .

3. Adding elements to your outline.

Here we can develop the steps we want our readers to follow in order to leave no doubt in their mind that our argument is logical and worth its weight.

So there’s our four main points. Next we can add in a little scenery . . .

How to Write an Outline: Adding Elements – Part Two

Filed under: Tutorials — howtowriteanoutline @ 6:13 pm

I think its important to note as we add elements, and perhaps I should have mentioned this at the beginning, but one of the key principles you should remember as you learn how to write an outline is that the outline itself is just for you. No one else is ever going to see it unless you display it for all the world to see like I am here.

Its YOUR road map to lay out your presentation, so you can add in any element you need to help you remember how the presentation is supposed to unfold. You decide how detailed it needs to be, or how lose you can afford to leave it and still know where you’re going with it.

Some people could probably give an hour long speaking presentation just on the four main points we’ve seen so far, namely . . .

  • 1. The purpose of writing an outline.
  • 2. The importance of writing an outline.
  • 3. Adding elements to your outline.
  • 4. Advanced Outline Writing

In my younger years when I was public speaking, I may have be able to get by on just that. Now, well, it’s not so easy to remember. So I find myself taking the more “scenic” route by adding in sub-points to my outlines.

For example, my outline for point 1, “The purpose of writing an outline” could look something like this:

  • 1. The purpose of writing an outline.
    • A. Helps to gather thoughts and creates coherency
    • B. Works for any type of presentation
    • C. Like a road map

So now I have sub-points to help me build on. Each sub-point could be a new paragraph, or a simple pause if I was giving an oral presentation. Having these sub-points also allows me to elaborate a little without losing my point or my place in the discussion.

Of course if was really feeling my age, I could dig down a little deeper and create sub-sub-points to guide my elaborations. Say if I wanted help to remember the various types of presentations I want to list, I could do this . . .

  • B. Works for any type of presentation
    • i. articles
    • ii. training manuals
    • iii. public speaking
    • iv. novel
    • v. thesis

You final outline should be just what you need to get through all the points you want to make. The points are about your audience, but level of detail is about you.

If “C. Like a road map” is enough for you to lay it all out, that’s great. But if you think you’ll draw a blank when it comes to explaining “how” its like a road map, add those points to your outline so you won’t.

So now we’re ready to move on to a more advanced level of how to write an outline . . .

How to Write an Outline: Advanced Techniques

Filed under: Tutorials — howtowriteanoutline @ 6:05 pm

Hopefully through this discussion on how to write an outline you can see how handy they are to use. They allow you put all your thoughts together in a natural order and help you present them as a logical argument. Always remember though, that an outline is YOUR guide, so you can add anything you want to it.

Here’s a few advanced ideas that you can add to any outline . . .


Supposing you want to back up one of your statements with a reference to an authority on the topic. In your outline you could simply put the authority, his/her book on the subject, page number if you wanted to, and quote.

  • 3. Adding elements to your outline
    • A. Steps for audience to follow
      • i. ref: Ken Nadreau, “creating the perfect outline”, page 47. “You’re in the driver’s seat and its up to you to deliver your audience where they need to be.”

I just made that up to show you, but now, as you present your reasons why you should add elements to an outline, you have a reference to back up what you’re saying. It’s kind of like having him standing along side you nodding his head in agreement.

If you’re giving an oral presentation you could even have his book with you so your audience can see you turning to page 47 and reading it directly. This kind of thing adds even more weight to the authority source.

Of course if your outline didn’t have the page number on it you may lose some of the force behind it if your audience has to wait for you to thumb through until you find it.

But then that’s the beauty of an outline, right? You can write down the page number and your audience will think you know the book by heart!

Alternate Routes

While going through the thought process of building your outline, you might think of other directions your presentation could go. Definitely write them down and structure them as a separate sidebar outline section just in case you want to veer off from your original plan.

This comes in handy for public speakers who detect they might be losing their audience, or a novelist who just plain doesn’t like the way the original layout is going.

Additional Information

You might find, as you write out your final document, that there just isn’t enough material to clearly make your point. This happens a lot to many writers, and a good way to overcome this is to have additional material ready to elaborate a topic a little more.

Again, create a sidebar outline for yourself and reference it from your main outline.

  • 4. Advanced outline writing
    • A. additional ref: C:\MyDocuments\writing\4d.txt

Or if you’re speaking publicly . . .

  • 4. Advanced outline writing
    • A. additional ref: notes, section 10

This way, if you find you have some extra time in your discourse, you can quickly reference your extra material and throw it in with none the wiser.

While we’re on the topic of additional information. If you’re really serious about becoming a writer and want some very useful tools to help you along, Kristi Sayles has produced a wonderful suite of software programs designed specifically for writers of all kinds. It includes many writing templates including several for outlines.

So I’ll let Kristi take you to the next level and leave you here. I hope you enjoyed How to Write an Outline, and that it starts you off on a successful writing or speaking career!

Create a free website or blog at