How to Make a Timeline

Instructor: Christina Boggs

Chrissy has taught secondary English and history and writes online curriculum. She has an M.S.Ed. in Social Studies Education.

In social studies, one of the easiest ways to study past events is by reading a timeline. This lesson explains the necessary steps to make a timeline of your own!

Studying the Past

You've probably realized by now that a lot of what you study in social studies (like history, anthropology, etc.) is presented in chronological order, or the order that events happened from the earliest point to the latest point. Sometimes this chronological information is written as a text. Other times, it's helpful to visually see when events happened. Timelines show the order of events from first to last along a line. This helps you to clearly see when things happened relative to other events. Timelines also help you study a period of time more closely. Follow the steps below to help you create timelines of your own!

Step 1: Purpose

First things first: what's the purpose of your timeline? Answering this question is one of the most important steps as you get started! Perhaps the purpose of your timeline is to show the order and outcome of major Revolutionary War battles. Maybe you're working on the biography of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and want to show major events from his life from birth to death. You could also use a timeline to show the passage of amendments to the Constitution. The possibilities are seemingly endless!

After you've determined the purpose of your timeline, think about two things:

  • the title of your timeline
  • the time period the timeline covers

Giving your timeline a title as well as a starting and ending point is a good way to focus the purpose. Possible titles for our earlier examples could be 'Major Battles of the Revolutionary War: 1775 to 1781' or 'The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: 1929 to 1968.'

Step 2: Research

After you've figured out what your timeline will cover, it's time to start research events to include. The focus of your timeline will determine how much information you cover. For example, a timeline about the amendments to the Constitution should include 27 dates because there are 27 amendments. A timeline about the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., however, is a little different because it's up to you to pick and choose important events. As a rule, try to aim for at least 15 key events as you make your own timelines, but be mindful of what truly matters for the scope of your timeline project.

As you research your events, take notes about what actually happened at the event, as well as the date. Remember, timelines show events in chronological order, so it's very important to know when things actually happened! You don't want to forget, though, that there needs to be a cohesive story to tell, too.

Step 3: Get Organized

Now that you've researched and selected events to include on your timeline, the next step is to put those events in order. If you were taking good, chronological notes all along, this should be easy.

Start with the earliest event. This will be the first piece of information listed on your timeline and it will be at or near the first major date listed on your timeline. From there, determine which event happened next and arrange it linearly on your timeline or, if you're drafting, on your outline. Continue this process until you've reached your last event, being sure to never mix up the order of events throughout your timeline.

Step 4: Building Your Timeline

The last step in the process is actually creating your timeline. In general, timelines include a horizontal line from left to right, but you may see some timelines that move vertically from top to bottom. Make sure that whatever you choose is intuitive.

After you've decided which way you'd like your line to appear, think about the range of dates you've included. Does your timeline span a period of days, months, years, decades, or centuries? Answering this question will help you determine how to break up the information on your timeline into smaller increments or segments. For example, if your timeline covers major events in American history through the 20th century, you could divide your timeline into decades like the example below.

This timeline is broken into increments of 10 years.
Timeline Decades

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