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How to Write an Outline

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  • 0:05 The Importance of…
  • 2:26 The Three Types of Outlines
  • 3:52 Building an Outline
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Bill Brown

Bill holds an M.A.T. He has taught English/Language Arts to secondary students.

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.

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
Alphanumeric Outline Example

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
Decimal Outline Example

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).'

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