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How to Write an Outline for an Essay or Research Paper

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  • 0:01 When and Why We Need…
  • 0:51 Alphanumeric Outline
  • 2:02 Web Outline
  • 4:05 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: J.R. Hudspeth

Jackie has taught college English and Critical Thinking and has a Master's degree in English Rhetoric and Composition

This lesson will cover two types of outline that you might use to help you organize your ideas and research. It will also cover what sort of ideas will go directly into the outline itself.

When and Why We Need to Do an Outline

An outline helps you to organize your ideas and put them in the order that you will write about them in your essay. Skipping this step usually makes the actual writing of the essay harder. You might find yourself scrambling to find the specific lines or facts from your research that you want to use. You might find yourself writing a disorganized jumble of facts and ideas that jumps around instead of flowing clearly. You might just find yourself unable to start the paper, caught sitting in front of a blank document while you try to figure out where to start.

Doing an outline can help you to avoid these pitfalls. Once you have brainstormed your topic and gathered your research for the paper, you should organize your ideas and research in an outline. When it comes time to actually do your outline, you have a number of options. Many writers who have never done outlines before usually find one of two types of outline the easiest: the alphanumeric outline and the web outline.

Alphanumeric Outline

Both the alphanumeric outline and web outlines are very good for organizing your supporting details, commentary and other information that you would like to put into your paper. Which one you choose really depends on your preferences. Alphanumeric outlines are very ordered, but web outlines can get a bit messy. Try both outlines to see which one that you find easiest to write and to follow.

An alphanumeric outline uses four types of characters to represent different parts of your paragraph. Though people sometimes do alphanumeric outlines a bit differently from one another, the typical way that an alphanumeric outline works is to use Roman numerals to represent your subtopics, capital letters for your supporting details that explain the subtopics and Arabic numerals and lowercase letters for commentary to explain the importance of the supporting details. You may use phrases, full sentences or a mixture of both in this outline.

Once you have written the outline, you should use it to help you write your paper. Put the outline in front of you as you type and follow it from top to bottom. You may even cross off each part of the outline after you're done writing about it. This helps you to make sure that you have covered each piece of detail and commentary that you have placed in the outline in the order that you intend to cover them.

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