Writing an Outline

An outline is a plan for writing a paper. They are commonly used as a prewriting strategy after a brainstorming process and before writing the first draft. According to the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (7th ed.), “Creating and using an outline helps you identify main ideas, define subordinate ideas, focus your writing, avoid tangential excursions, and find omissions” (2020, p. 126). Overall, outlines help writers map the order of ideas and see the links between them in order to ensure all the information is unified on the main idea(s), ordered logically, and developed adequately.

Alphanumeric Outlines

The alphanumeric outline is the most common type of outline. The formatting goes in the following order:
– Roman Numerals
– Capitalized Letters
– Arabic Numerals
– Lowercase Letters
An example of an alphanumeric outline is below. This and the other sample outlines are for an essay about a future career.

Pursuing a Medical Career

I. Prospective Career in the Field of Medicine
    A. Job title
    B. Job description
        1. Job responsibilities
        2. Job requirements
            a) Schooling needed
            b) Experience of skills needed
        3. Projected salary

Topic Outlines

A topic outline uses headings and subheadings for each point, each topic heading and subheading is formed with words and phrases rather than complete sentences.

Choosing a Career

I. Chosen Career
    A. Career title
    B. Career description
        1. Possible job responsibilities
        2. Requirements to acquire the career
            a) Higher education degree needed
            b) Advancement opportunities within the field
        3. Starting and future salary

Full Sentence Outlines

A full-sentence outline format is the same as an alphanumeric outline, except that it uses full sentences for each point throughout the outline.

A Career in Medicine

I. There are many prospective careers in the field of medicine.
    A. One important medical career is registered nursing.
    B. The job description of a registered nurse (RN) varies depending on the facility and doctor the nurse works with. Generally, a nurse focuses on the care of patients.
        1. RNs have several job responsibilities.
            a) RNs promote good health and prevent illness, administer medications under the supervision of doctors, and keep records of patient symptoms and progress.
            b) RNs also education patients and the public about medical conditions, treat and help patients in their rehabilitation, and provide advice and emotional support to patients’ families.
        2. Higher education is required to become an RN.
            a) To be an RN, one must obtain an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in nursing.
            b) A mater’s degree in nursing is also expected at some medical facilities or for some nursing specialties and for advancement.
        3. The annual projected salary for a nurse can range from $30,000 to $100,000.

Decimal Outlines

The decimal outline is similar to the alphanumeric outline; however, the decimal outline includes decimal notation that indicates how every level of the outline relates to one other.

Choosing a Career

  1. Research careers
        1.1. Choose a career
        1.2. State chosen career title
            1.2.1. Explain career responsibilities
            1.2.2. Explain career requirements
       Provide educational requirements
       Describe potential advancement opportunities

Strategies for Effective Outlines

Effective outlines are written with attention to word forms and sentence structures. Specifically, the following elements of writing style are important for creating a coherent and clear outline.


Repeating the syntactical structures of subsequent clauses, phrases, or words creates coherence (unity and soundness) in writing and improves readability. We call this kind of intentional repetition “parallelism.” Each of the sample outlines in this resource also illustrates parallelism. Here’s another example:

I. Choose prospective career.
II. Provide career responsibilities.
III. Discuss educational requirements.

In the example, each phrase begins with a present tense verb, so each is parallel in structure. If one of the verbs was in another form, or if the point began with a noun instead of a verb, the points would not be parallel making it harder for a reader to see how the ideas link together to form a logical (coherent) organization.

Not Parallel
I. Choosing prospective career
II. Provide career responsibilities.
III. Educational requirements


All the information contained in the first heading should have the same importance as the information or subtopic in the second heading and third, etc. Similarly, the subheadings should be equal in importance to one another. In the following example, points I, II, and III are each main points with balanced importance in the paper. The points with lesser importance, the supporting details, are given in the next level of the outline:

I. Research your prospective career.
II. Evaluate your prospective career responsibilities.
    A. Explain significant responsibilities
    B. Note additional responsibilities required.

Subordination The information in the headings should be more general, and the information in the subheadings should be more specific. In the example below, to describe a career would be to provide an overview or general information whereas stating the job title and explaining the job responsibilities would be to provide specific details.

I. Describe your prospective career
    A. State your job title.
    B. Explain your job responsibilities.


Each heading should be divided into two or more parts. For instance, if there is a I, there should also be a II, and if there is an A, there should also be a B, and if there is a 1, there should also be a 2 and so on.

I. Describe your future career.
    A. State the job title.
    B. Explain the job responsibilities.
II. Evaluate employment forecast for this career.
    A. Discuss hiring trends.
    B. Provide employment/unemployment statistics.

Selecting an Outline Strategy and Other Outlining Tips

When selecting an outline, it is important to consider your purpose for writing an outline, the audience who will read the outline, and the course and any assignment requirements for your outline.

Additionally, your specific topic and thesis statement, as well as the number of supporting points in your thesis, may also help you determine the best outline strategy.

When including research in an outline, every instance of source information requires an APA in-text citation and a full citation on a references list.

Microsoft® Word has an outlining feature. To access this feature, click on the Home tab and scroll to the Paragraph settings, and click on the appropriate outline format.

  1. Select Home tab as shown in Figure 1.
  2. Scroll to paragraph settings as shown in Figure 1 and select an outline option.

Figure 1

Microsoft Word Outlines MSWordOutlineTool


American Psychological Association. (2020). Publication manual of the American Psychological Association (7th ed.). https://doi.org/10.1037/0000165-000