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, Arabic numerals, bullet points, or a combination of these. 

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 citations or works cited

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

General Content & Structure for a Research Paper Outline

The following is one way an outline can be structured. Whether using letters, numbers, bullets, or a combination, each part of an outline should be labeled so it is always clear what is being included.

A full-sentence outline may be required when submitting an outline as a course assignment or a more basic outline can be used as a starting point for yourself in organizing your paper. Be sure to follow any assignment instructions for an outline. 


A. Introduction with Thesis: A thesis statement that indicates the topic and the main points of discussion that will be included.

B. First body paragraph: The first main point of discussion.

    1. Supporting evidence: Information from at least one source along with the in-text citation(s). The evidence should directly support the topic sentence for the paragraph. If you have supporting evidence from more than one source, use 1.a., 1.b., and so on. (See section C. for an example.)

    2. Analysis: Explanation of the supporting evidence in your own words and/or how that evidence works to support the topic sentence for this paragraph.

C. Next body paragraph topic sentence:

    1.a. Supporting evidence from one source:

    1.b. Supporting evidence from next source if applicable:

    2. Analysis:

(Follow the same format above for each body paragraph needed. A new body paragraph should be created for each new topic or subtopic introduced. You should have at least 3 body paragraphs but could have many more.)

D. Conclusion

    1. Rephrased thesis: Rephrase your thesis statement.

    2. Significance: Why is this topic of discussion important or what are the implications of this?