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This Guide was created as a joint project of the Academic Resource Center and the William H. Hannon Library.

Traditional Outline

Ever feel overwhelmed by all the facts, dates, events, quotations, ideas, definitions, theories, and explanations in a paper?

Creating an outline helps you to:    

  • Create a visual picture of your ideas
  • See the connections between your ideas
  • See where you need more support for a point
  • Find the “best structure” for your paper

To create your outline:

  1. Brainstorm/list all ideas you want to include.  For more help generating ideas see Brainstorming Strategies.
  2. Organize by grouping related ideas into clusters.
  3. Put your clusters in order. Begin with bigger ideas as headers, and include details underneath them.
  4. Arrange and re-arrange the order.
  5. Take out parts that don’t fit or are repetitive.
  6. See if anything is missing.

The traditional outline:

This example outline has three main ideas. Your paper may have more than three or only two main ideas.

I.  Intro with thesis


A. First idea




B. Second idea




C. Third idea




III. Conclusion

Don’t like the traditional outline format? You can also try:

  • Rhetorical pyramid (see pyramid below)
  • Mind mapping software (see links at top right)
  • Write ideas on notecards or post-its and re-arrange as needed.
  • Type ideas into a Powerpoint or Prezi presentation and re-arrange the slides.

Before turning your outline into a rough draft, ask yourself:

  • Does my thesis control the direction of my outline?
  • Are all of my main points relevant to my thesis?
  • Does the logic and order make sense?
  • Does my argument progress, or does it stall?
  • Do I have sufficient support for each of my points?
  • Have I made room in my outline for other points of view about my topic?
  • Does this outline reflect a thorough, thoughtful argument?


Rhetorical Pyramids

Reverse Outlining

Many writers come to the writing center asking, “Does my paper flow?”

How does a reader judge if a paper flows? Readers look for the topics of sentences and paragraphs. When they can easily identify these topics and see how--across an essay-- they are related to each other and add up to a whole, readers say the writing “flows.” There are two levels of flow in a paper:

  1. At the macro or big picture level, the placement of main ideas and their supporting details seems logical to the reader. We call this logical coherence. This handout provides a strategy (reverse outlining) to check your paper for logical coherence
  2. At the micro level, readers look for specific words such as key terms, pronouns or transitions to help them follow the thread of your paper. We call this lexical coherence. Refer to Flow and Lexical Coherence for this. We strongly recommend you check your paper for lexical coherence AFTER you’ve checked the logical coherence. 

Reverse outlining is a revision strategy to help you identify problems with your paper’s flow, organization, and development. Unlike an outline you make before you write a draft, a reverse outline is done after. Before you begin reverse outlining, you must feel somewhat confident about the strength of your thesis. Many of the questions you will ask yourself pertain to how closely your paragraphs support your thesis.

Beginning with the last paragraph of your essay, read each paragraph carefully and ask yourself this question -- What does the paragraph do? Write your answers in the margin of the paper or on a separate page. Use the questions below to help you decide what the paragraph does in your paper:

  • Does it introduce a new topic? What is the topic?
  • Does the topic support the thesis directly, indirectly, or not at all?
  • Does the paragraph develop a point?
  • Does it set a mood or summarize a point? 

Do not write down what you want the paragraph to do. Focus on what the words on the page do. Even if the sentences are confusing or misleading, write down exactly what the paragraph does. If you realize the paragraph talks about more than one topic, write down all the topics.

When you have finished, read all of your notes from front to back. Then respond to the following questions:

  • Are any of the paragraphs unnecessary because they repeat the same points?
  • Do any of these paragraphs seem to discuss more than one topic? If yes, could the paragraph be split up?
  • Do any of these paragraphs seem out of place?
  • Do all of your topics support your thesis? Do any of the paragraphs take the reader in a direction you had not intended?
  • Is anything missing from this essay that you thought you had included?
  • Does this ordering of ideas seem easy for a reader to follow? Why did you choose this order? Does it follow the order you laid out in the introduction?
  • Does the essay seem choppy? If it does, how do the paragraphs move from one idea to the next? How could you make the move from one paragraph to another smoother? See Flow and Lexical Coherence for more help.

Now you should see ways you want to revise your paper’s organization and improve the flow. You should also see if certain points of your paper need further development (see Expand your Draft) or if some should be deleted from the paper. Perhaps this revision strategy has made you realize your thesis needs tweaking to more closely resemble what your paper turned out to be. (see Thesis Formulation)
After checking your paper for logical coherence and making any necessary revisions, you are now ready to check for lexical coherence. Are you using the right words to keep your reader on track? Go to Flow and Lexical coherence.
See this link to UNC's podcast for a quick take on reverse outlining.

Writing Activity for Outlining

After reading the above information on outlining, attempt the writing activity below for further practice. 

Links to Other Resources

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