There is more to an outline than Roman numerals! Think of it as an organizing tool — most of the work is done in the intellect instead of on the page.
Outlining can be required before a work is written as a way to organize an essay, short story, book report, or other form of writing. But it can also be used to summarize another’s work. Outlining while reading a book, for example, is one way to get more out of what we are reading. Ruth Beechick frequently mentions asking a student to make an outline of an article or essay (preferably a well-written article or essay), and on a subsequent day, writing his own article or essay from the outline. As an example,
Take notes [on a paragraph or two]; outline them if you can. Wait one or two days, then write two paragraphs from your notes. Compare your paragraphs with [the author’s], and find ways to improve your writing. Wait again and write new paragraphs from your notes. Did you improve?
Dr. Ruth Beechick, taken from the Parent-Teacher Guide for the Original McGuffey Readers
If you are looking at another’s work, you will need to be able to find the main idea, and then list the details.
After reading something full of information that you want to remember, develop an outline. You don’t have to do the outline in order. First you could get down the main points, then back up and put information under each main point. Your second or third time through you may change your mind about what points are the main ones, but that’s all right. When your information is all listed, ask your teacher to show you how people number and label the parts of an outline, and how the subpoints should be indented under the main ones.
Dr. Ruth Beechick, You Can Teach Your Child Successfully
Outlines typically take the following example format:
I. Main Point 1
A. Subpoint 1
B. Supoint 2
II. Main Point 2
A. Subpoint 1
B. Subpoint 2
C. Subpoint 3
III. Main Point 3
There is no requirement to have a certain number of points or subpoints — although some would like you to believe you must always have at least two subpoints. That would be fine if writers always followed such rules, but they don’t. You may not always find two subpoints. For this reason, and others, always try to fit the tool to the form, rather than the other way around. Some outlines may end up being a simple list.
- Practice finding the main point of a paragraph.
- Once finding the main point is easy, begin to identify the subpoints.
- When subpoints are easily identified, begin to looking for examples and flesh out the outline.
- Once a student is competent at outlining another’s work, he can begin to write an outline that he will follow for his own work.
This interactive from ReadWriteThink walks you through the process.