How to Create a Perfect Outline

The present article offers college students a complete guide to creating a coherent and comprehensive outline.

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An outline is a formal plan for a paper that helps in organizing the paper’s anticipated content and envisioning its structure. Creating an outline is the last step before beginning to write and follows the preliminary steps of choosing a topic, generating ideas, and formulating the thesis statement. Paper outlines enable students to develop refined writing skills and convey complex ideas.

Importance of Doing an Outline Before Writing

Outlines are crucial for avoiding errors in logic, ensuring an appropriate flow of ideas, and finding the perfect balance among the parts of the written work. Careful planning allows students to identify key points in writing and distribute the assigned word count according to the importance of each aspect of the total paper. Apart from determining priorities, outlines help to identify connections between essential elements, ensuring proper coherence in a paper. Moreover, a detailed plan clarifies the workload and helps in performing multiple tasks as it can incorporate specific deadlines for every part of the work. In short, outlines are essential, facilitating the writing process and keeping readers more engaged.

Approaches to Outlines

The two fundamental methods for building a plan for a paper involve creating a topic outline or a sentence outline.

Topic Outlines

The most common way to organize thoughts is through topic phrases. This approach is beneficial when writing a paper that discusses many different issues. In this case, aspects of the work can be easily condensed into sentence fragments, which should not be very specific and may be generalized in only a few words. Such entries, usually coinciding with the headings in the paper, are useful for writing essays, responses, literature reviews, article critiques, and case studies. In brief, students are expected to master the skill of making topic outlines, which are used for many college assignments.

Sentence Outlines

Sentence outlines are essential when creating papers that deal with complex and specific issues in reporting on longer projects. Sentences help to incorporate all the necessary details and shorten the outline in lieu of creating many short phrases that prolong the plan. This approach is common for dissertations, scholarly articles, and business reports. In summary, while this type of outline is not used as frequently as the first, students are expected to become proficient in both methods of planning.

How to Make an Outline

  1. Identify the assignment type and select the appropriate approach to planning. The information provided above may be beneficial for making the choice between a topic outline and a sentence outline.
  2. State the research problem in one sentence, which will provide a starting point for the discussion that will follow. This problem statement can also be beneficial for drafting the title of the paper and creating a thesis statement.
  3. Determine the main categories that will eventually become first-level headings. This step helps students to acquire understanding in terms of tightening the focus on the probable target of the thesis statement.
  4. Develop the first category, defining the key terms, giving important background to the problem, and describing theoretical approaches to the problem.
  5. Create all the subcategories that strengthen the argument by developing the main categories. This step may become a challenge as students usually begin with a lack of understanding of the problem. Therefore, feel free to omit the fifth step and come back to it at the appropriate time.
  6. Review the outline and make necessary corrections to match any provided formatting standards.

Things to Remember

  1. An outline is made before writing a paper and can be changed in the process of conducting research. Although the outline serves as a guide that helps students avoid crucial mistakes, it can be modified in the process of writing as students acquire a more profound understanding of the research problem.
  2. There are no rules postulating one best approach to writing outlines. Students should feel flexible in choosing the best option for their situation.
  3. Chronological order is an efficient way of organizing the general layout of the paper. While this method may not be universal, it is most beneficial in studies where the sequence of events is essential to understanding the problem.
  4. Students should be aware of appropriate outline length. A half-page outline is enough for a five-page essay, while the outline for a research paper may be up to four pages in length.

In short, while outlines may follow rigid format requirements, they are designed to make the writer flexible and adaptive in providing the best arguments.


Creating an outline is the last crucial step before writing any academic paper. Careful planning enables students to make correct organizational decisions, ensure coherence in the paper, and distribute the paper’s required word count appropriately. While outlines may follow a strict format, students are free to choose any approach to planning a paper and to arranging the categories needed to discuss the research problem. An example of a topic outline for the present paper has been provided as a supplement to offer a better understanding of the format used in this writing tool.


Making an Outline

  1. Introduction
  2. Importance
  3. Approaches to Outlines
  • Topic Outlines
  • Sentence Outlines
  1. Instructions
  2. Things to Remember
  3. Conclusion

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