Style: The Craft of Skilled Writing

13 Using Outlines to Strengthen Writing

When I create a document, I often note that the first sentence is my halfway point.

Before I can reach my first sentence, I need to research my topic, brainstorm ideas, and then create a detailed outline (which is the topic of this chapter). After my first sentence, I need to write the rest of the document, include my citations and references, proofread, edit, format, and polish (which includes design work, adding images, and making sure the document looks good aesthetically). Half of the work comes before the first sentence; half of the work comes after.

Too few students invest enough time before the first sentence, so this chapter teaches you how to use detailed outlines to strengthen your professional writing.

In teaching about detailed outlines, I want you to begin the process by envisioning an alien spacecraft orbiting the planet Earth. Yes, imagine some intra-galactic visitors are in a fancy spaceship circling the skies above us. These aliens are very fancy. Their technology is way beyond ours (after all, they travel between star systems) and they are very curious (much like humans), but they are very shy, so they don’t want to make contact with us. These aliens have a mission: report to their home planet everything there is to say about planet Earth.


That’s a major task. It’s also a very important task because not everybody from their home planet can travel all these light years to see for themselves. So, our alien visitors will need to write an incredibly large report.

Imagine that: one document that encompasses all the available information about Earth.

These aliens can’t simply sit down at their computers and start typing away. They need to be systematic and they need to be organized. Their friends back home can’t simply read about Earth with topics in random order; that would be chaotic and confusing.

How can they organize such a vast amount of knowledge? With a detailed outline.

If you look at the table of contents for this OER textbook, you’ll see that it’s effectively a brief outline of the whole book. It’s not detailed, but it does give useful information about the contents of the book and where to locate those contents. I often tell students that a detailed outline is effectively the first draft of the table of contents (but with more detail).

If a single book can be outlined, so can an entire field of study, such as botany or economics. If a field of study can be outlined, so can all the knowledge of the known world.

How would you create such an outline? What major categories would you create? What subcategories would you create? How many levels might you have in the hierarchy of information? (By “hierarchy of information,” I mean that you have content first organized into major topics, then into sub-topics, then into specific areas of discussion, and then into points that need to be made in that discussion. The table of contents for this OER has a two-tier hierarchy. Some tables of contents have three levels; I have rarely seen a table of contents with four levels. However, a detailed outline could have as many levels as you need/want.)

If you want to maximize this learning opportunity, stop here and try to create a detailed outline for the report our alien visitors will need to write. You’ll probably have at least four levels in the hierarchy (after all, there’s a lot to say about Earth) and don’t be surprised if you reach seven or more levels.

If you’re going to complete this activity, stop reading now until you’re done.

All done?

Great. Here’s the big reveal (spoiler alert).

The document our alien visitors need to write has already been written. It’s called an encyclopedia. You can find the detailed outline for Wikipedia here: At some points, this outline has seven levels in its hierarchy, which provides an outline for over six million articles published in English on the website.

That’s how one group of people thought we should organize all the information we have about planet Earth.

If somebody can make an outline for all of that information, you can make an outline for any assignment you’re working on.

Creating an outline helps to give a logical structure to your work and it reduces the likelihood of unplanned repetition. With a detailed outline, you can even start placing your citations in advance so you know which source you’ll use in which part of your work. This also helps ensure that you keep track of where you’re citing each source in your writing.

As an aside, never write a document without citations, planning to go put the citations in after you’ve written the document. This is a recipe for disaster. If you lose track, you may accidentally plagiarize. Add your citations and references as you’re writing a document or, even better, when you’re creating the detailed outline for your document.

Detailed outlines also save you time. When you have a clear, well structured outline, you’re less likely to encounter writer’s block because you know what you need to write about next. With a really good outline, you can start writing your content in a way that will make sense to you; the words should simply flow naturally at that point.

The time invested in creating a detailed outline is more than worthwhile. You’ll have a better final document and you’ll save time in the long run.

In terms of formatting a detailed outline, that’s really up to you because you’re probably the only person who will ever see it. If you use it to create your table of contents, you’ll probably simplify and reduce to make the table more accessible to the reader.

However, writers frequently structure their detailed outlines something like this (and you’ll note that I’ve included notes about where to place citations so that I can save time later):

I. Introduction

A. Purpose

B. Audience

1. Primary audience: students (cite Jones et al., 2021)

2. Secondary audience: teachers (cite Smith & Bains, 2020)

C. Context

1. Historical background (cite Chen et al., 2010, and Muskova & Ignatz, 2012).

2. Recent events (cite Sharma & Bains, 2022)

3. Popular opinion (cite Ipsos Reid poll, 2021)

D. Outcomes

II. Research methods

A. Secondary research

1. Academic journal articles

2. Trade publications

3. Government reports and statistics

B. Primary research

1. Surveys

2. Focus groups

3. One-on-one interviews

III. Results of research

A. Literature review

1. Discuss works by Nunes et al., 2020

2. Discuss works by De Tocqueville, 2017

3. Discuss works by Ibn Sina, 2016

B. Data analysis

C. Findings

1. Detailed outlines save time

2. Including citations in the outlines saves time and protects against accidental plagiarism

3. Detailed outlines help create better documents

IV. Conclusion

V. References


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