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How Outlining Is Essential to Your Writing

Updated on February 26, 2021Writing Tips
Outlining Tips

No matter what you’re writing, outlining is a crucial early step in the writing process. An outline provides the framework upon which your finished piece of writing is built; it provides the template to fill in with your unique insights and ideas. 

Of the five steps of the writing process, outlining is part of the second: preparing. Whether you’re writing a lengthy research paper, a short essay, a blog post, or a presentation, outlining is a crucial practice that can save you lots of time later. It’s also a roadmap you can refer back to at later writing stages, particularly if you find your writing cruising off course or feel stuck in the mud and unsure of how to get rolling again. 

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Why is outlining important?

Outlining is a way to organize your thoughts in a coherent, logical way. There’s a reason why it’s the next step after brainstorming: Imagine a brainstorm as a wild tornado of ideas whirling around in your head. You observe the storm, grab onto the most valuable ideas, then corral and organize them into a logical sequence that expresses your position and fits your assignment. 

That logical sequence is your outline. It helps give your ideas structure and shape. Without a structure, your paragraphs would read more like a brainstorm than a polished draft—resembling more of a jumbled tornado than a coherent sequence that readers can follow. 

In some cases, outlining is also a required part of your assignment. If you’re a professional writer creating a blog post or website content, your client might ask for an outline before you start writing so they can approve it or make changes. Similarly, a professor might require students to submit outlines before beginning research papers in order to confirm the students’ topics are appropriate for the course. Outlines show the professor that students are using credible sources, choosing appropriate topics, and aren’t trying to cram too much information into the allotted assignment length. Here, outlines help determine if a student needs to change direction before doing unnecessary work. 

Remember, in any instance, you’re creating an outline for your own benefit. It’s an easy way to organize your writing plan before you actually start and a handy reference for if you get stuck. 

What to include in your outline

Your outline should map out each section of your writing and include:

  • Your thesis statement 
  • The topics you’re covering
  • Each piece of supporting evidence for each topic
  • Your conclusion

Under each section heading, jot down a few of the key points you plan to discuss there. You might also want to drop in links to the sources you plan on citing. 

Types of outlines

There are a few different ways to label your outline. Two of the most widely used are topic outlines and sentence outlines. Both of these kinds of outlines are organized like bullet lists, which makes it easy to visualize a lot of information in just a few lines.

Topic outline

In a topic outline, you sketch out your writing using keywords and phrases. These keywords and phrases condense each section’s main idea into a quick, at-a-glance header. They don’t have to be your final headers, but they can be. 

Here’s an example:

  • Thesis: Adopting a mindfulness practice is one of the best ways to alleviate daily stress.
  • Topic: Mindfulness reduces depression relapse risk
  • Studies on depression relapse and mindfulness
  • Topic: Mindfulness reduces chronic pain
  • Studies on mindfulness reducing pain
  • Studies on mindfulness and immune system
  • Topic: Mindfulness therapy reduces stress and anxiety
  • Studies on supporting mindfulness therapy reduces stress and anxiety
  • Conclusion: Mindfulness is good for you—here’s why

See how the ideas are clearly organized here, but they’re each boiled down to a fragment?

Sentence outline

A sentence outline lists each section of the piece as a full sentence. These sentences aren’t necessarily your headers or the first sentence of each section. Instead, they’re sentences that describe the focal point of each section. For example, your sentence outline might look like: 

  • Thesis: Adopting a mindfulness practice is one of the best ways to alleviate daily stress.
  • Topic: Mindfulness has been proven to significantly reduce an individual’s risk of relapsing into major depression.
  • Multiple studies have indicated the link between mindfulness and a reduced risk of depression relapse.
  • Topic: Mindfulness has been demonstrated to lessen chronic pain.
  • The following studies have shown that daily mindfulness alleviates physical pain.
  • In these studies, mindfulness improved practitioners’ immune systems.
  • Topic: Mindfulness therapy can dramatically decrease stress and anxiety levels. 
  • Researchers pinpointed the link between mindfulness and stress reduction.
  • These studies have shown the link between mindfulness and anxiety reduction.
  • Conclusion: Making mindfulness part of your daily routine will reduce the amount of stress you feel, which in turn will yield numerous physical and mental health benefits.

One type of outline isn’t better than the other, so go with the one that helps you conceptualize your finished piece most clearly. Notice how both types follow the same structure: the thesis in the introductory section, followed by each body paragraph with its supporting data nested beneath.

Tips for easy outlining that make writing a breeze

Don’t try to make it perfect! Your outline is just a bare-bones version of your first draft that tells you what you need to cover and the order in which to make your points. As long as it’s clear and readable, your outline is good enough. 

Familiarize yourself with the type of writing you’re doing before you start to outline. This way, you’ll know which structure to follow in your writing. For example, if you’ve been assigned a persuasive essay, read our guide on How to Write a Persuasive Essay to make sure you’re outlining and writing with the right goals in mind. 

Although your outline is technically a reference document for you to use, you might have to go back and revise your outline after you’ve finished it, sometimes even after you’ve begun writing your first draft. This could be because:

  • Your client/employer has a different plan for the content.
  • Your professor determined your outline doesn’t fit the assignment or otherwise won’t work for a finished piece.
  • As you wrote, you determined you need to address different points in your writing.

Treat your outline as a living document. If you need to go back and revise, go back and revise! Your outline exists to support your writing, so if your writing ends up going in a different direction than you’d originally planned, revise your outline so you don’t lose it as a reference.

Sometimes, it’s easiest to write your conclusion first and work backward from there. If you know where your writing is going to end up, but you’re not quite sure how you’ll get there, write your conclusion (or at least a few sentences you’ll flesh out later) and then create an outline that logically leads up to it. 

>>Need help writing your conclusion? How to Write a Conclusion for an Essay

Ready for the next step in the writing process?

Once your outline’s finished, you’re ready to start writing your first draft. Don’t worry about getting the tone just right or making sure your punctuation’s perfect—Grammarly can help with that. Just start building each point in your outline into a fully developed paragraph or two, and you’re on your way to an excellent piece of writing.

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