How to Write an Outline
Whether it's a doctoral thesis or high school essay, outlining is crucial to writing success. This lesson emphasizes the importance of outlines and specifically addresses the three most common outlines for writers to utilize.
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The Importance of Making an Outline
For as long as I can remember, I’ve dreamed of designing and constructing my very own home one day. It sits high on a hill with breathtaking views of the ocean below. There’s a white picket fence surrounding a luscious green yard where Sparky, my golden retriever, happily chases his tail and teases the neighbor’s cats. Two cars fill the garage and two children swing happily on the swing set while burgers sizzle on the grill and mom pours a refreshing glass of lemonade.
But what if my dream home was built without any plans - there were no blueprints to make my vision a reality? Well, Bob here did just that. He dreams of building his own home too. In fact, he’s so excited to build and eager to save a few bucks that he hires the most notorious builder in town: Calvin and his crew from the Calamitous Construction Company. Bob couldn’t be bothered with such minor details as building a plan, acquiring permits or even much direction beyond ‘build me an awesome home!’ So Calvin simply guessed what Bob wanted and made up construction plans as he went along. And sure enough, nothing went right, the home was poorly built and Bob’s dream literally collapsed because he didn’t provide instruction and take the time to plan out the work.
Example of an alphanumeric outline
Think of the outline for an essay like the blueprints for a house. Thought and groundwork is needed to plan a dream home, and the same is true for a successful essay. Jumping right in to the first draft without a blueprint will leave you with an essay that crumbles like the house.
After watching his father’s dream crumble to pieces, Bob’s son Ben wants desperately to make the family’s dream home a reality. A recently assigned essay in Ben’s drafting class on the construction of green homes is the perfect opportunity for Ben to learn from his dad’s mistakes in regards to a lack of planning and possibly suggest some cost-cutting tips to make the new home environmentally friendly as well as beautiful.
The Three Types of Outlines
Ben makes his way to the library, where he starts by gathering reference material. Once he’s identified a direction for his essay, he sits down to construct an outline , or a basic skeleton of ideas to be expanded upon later. When it comes to outlining, Ben has a few choices. Let’s look at the three most frequently used.
Ben’s first choice is the alphanumeric outline . The alphanumeric outline uses a series of letters and numbers to identify main ideas and suggest placement of details later on. This is a popular outline for writers because it’s fairly vague and not too time-consuming.
His second choice is the decimal outline . Similar to the alphanumeric outline, the decimal outline still lacks many clear specifics but does allow for more expansion, showing how each sub-idea relates to the larger whole. Notice how this outline uses a series of numbers with decimals to organize each detail.
The format of a decimal outline
Finally, Ben can choose the full sentence outline . The sentence outline is most often used in drafting traditional essays and is my personal favorite because the sentence outline requires full sentences instead of generality. True, this may take more time up front, but it will make the essay drafting process much easier in the long run.
Building an Outline
Having decided on the sentence outline, Ben is ready to create the basic skeleton for his paper on the benefits of constructing environmentally friendly homes. He begins by centering the title of his outline on the paper, which is, by no surprise, ‘The Benefits of Environmentally Friendly Home Construction.’
Ben’s decided the first paragraph of his essay will explore the lower utility costs associated with owning a ‘green’ home. Next to Roman numeral number one, Ben creates a complete sentence to identify the main idea of the paragraph. We often refer to this as a topic sentence . ‘Installing energy-efficient appliances in our homes leads to a more environmentally friendly home and can greatly reduce utility costs.’
Great! He’s set a direction for this first paragraph, and now he needs to add specific details from his research. Ben will go down to the next line on his page, indent five spaces, and write his first specific detail next to capital letter ‘A.’ ‘According to ENERGY Star, homeowners could save up to $180 each year by utilizing an environmentally friendly programmable thermostat (RESNET, 2012).’
Ben included a specific and relevant detail and even remembered to cite it. He’ll skip to the next line again and this time indent ten spaces to insert number 1, or his take on the meaning of the detail. We generally refer to this sentence as analysis . Ben has interpreted his detail as: ‘Making environmentally friendly choices during construction when it comes to installing appliances has lasting economic benefits for homeowners.’
Full sentence outlines are commonly used in traditional essay planning
When making an outline for your own papers, it’s generally a good idea to provide two specific details with at least one sentence of analysis for each of the essay’s body paragraphs. This can be added to during the drafting process later, but the ratio seems to lay a solid foundation for student essays.
So in order for Ben to complete a sentence outline for the first body paragraph of this essay, he’ll need to identify at least one more specific detail, labeled ‘B,’ followed by another sentence of analysis. He does that by touching on the importance of those new, spiral bulbs we see in stores today. ‘The front porch light is one of the most used lights in the house; therefore, installing a compact fluorescent light bulb (CFL) in this location can help curb energy costs (RESNET, 2012).’ Once again, Ben follows this detail up with a sentence of analysis: ‘1. A few simple changes to our home furnishing purchases can change the way we spend and impact the environment.’
There you have it! Ben is well on his way to completing a full sentence outline for his paper on environmentally friendly homes. Using the thesis he constructed to guide the rest of his research, Ben will repeat the steps he took in Roman numeral number one to fill in details and analysis for the rest of his paper.
Ben is not the only one who learned from the mistake of poor planning. Ben’s dad Bob did his homework this time too, and with the help of the Capable Construction Company he’s ready to build the home of his dreams.
After watching this lesson, you should be able to:
Define an outline and understand the importance of creating one
Identify and explain the three types of outlines
Summarize how to construct a sentence outline
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