What is an outline?

An outline is a tool used to organize your written ideas about a topic into a logical order. It is meant to help you establish a structure for a paper you are going to write. It is a way for you to demonstrate the main argument (thesis), main points (topic sentences), and main pieces of evidence you are going to present in a paper before actually writing the paper.

Additionally, one of the essential purposes of an outline is to clearly convey the connection between the thesis and each of the topic sentences.

Why should I outline first?

Think about it this way: if you were going on a road trip, wouldn’t you look up where you are going and plan a route? The same goes for writing a paper. It is always best to have a plan.

Outlining is basically establishing a plan for your paper. It allows you to think through your paper before you actually start writing, and see if there are any holes in your argument or gaps in your research. Also, it is a great way to see if your paper flows and makes logical sense before you start writing.

Outlining in APA, MLA, or other style

There are no APA or MLA rules about how to structure and format the outline itself. Outlines can be structured in different ways—very detailed or less detailed; Roman numerals or Arabic numerals; bullet points or numbers and letters.

If you are asked to use APA or MLA formatting for an outline assignment, this refers to:

  • Including appropriate title page or first-page header
  • Using correctly styled in-text citations
  • Using correctly styled reference or works cited citations

For help formatting the title page, in-text citations, or reference citations for your outline, see more information on APA/MLA/Chicago.

Outline Structure

  1. Introduction
    • Thesis: Indicate your topic, your main point about that topic, and the points of discussion for that topic.
  2. Body Paragraph 1: Topic sentence goes here.
    • Supporting evidence: A paraphrase or quote from one of your sources goes here, along with an in-text citation.
      • Explanation of the meaning of the supporting evidence.
      • So what? A direct statement on how the supporting evidence does in fact support the claim made in the topic sentence.
  3. Body Paragraph 2: Topic sentence goes here.
    • Supporting evidence
      • Explanation
      • So what?
  4. Body Paragraph 3: Topic sentence goes here.
    • Supporting evidence
      • Explanation
      • So what?
  5. Conclusion:
    • Rephrased Thesis Statement: Rephrase your thesis.
    • Strong Closing: Close your paper with the significance of this discussion. Why is this discussion important?

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