Unit 12: Outlining Your Message

Learning Objective

1. Apply outlining techniques to begin drafting a document.

Once you’ve clarified the organizing principle of your message, outlining with hierarchical notes helps you plot out the bare-bones structure of the message’s full scope so that you can flesh it out into full sentences and paragraphs shortly after. Outlining helps you get past one of the most terrifying moments in any student’s or professional’s job, especially when beginning a large writing project: writer’s block. Even after completing all the other steps of the writing process explored above, freezing up while staring down a blank screen is an anxiety-driven mental bottleneck that often comes from either lacking anything to say because you haven’t researched the topic, or thinking that your draft writing has to come out perfectly just as the reader will see it by the end of the process. It absolutely doesn’t. Drafting is supposed to produce a sketchy, disappointing mess only because the goal at this stage is to get ideas down fast so that you can fix them up later in the editing stage.

Outlining is a structured brainstorming activity that helps keep you on track by assigning major, overarching ideas and relatively minor, supporting points to their proper places in the framework of your chosen organizing principle. At its most basic form for a three-part message, an outline looks like the following:

  1. Opening
    1. Point 1
    2. Point 2
  2. Body (Background, Details and Context)
    1. Point 1
      1. Subpoint 1
      2. Subpoint 2
        1. Sub-subpoint 1
        2. Sub-subpoint 2
          1. Sub-sub-subpoint 1
          2. Sub-sub-subpoint 2
          3. Sub-sub-subpoint 3
        3. Sub-subpoint 3
      3. Subpoint 3
    2. Point 2
      1. Subpoint 1
      2. Subpoint 2
      3. Subpoint 3
  3. Closing
    1. Point 1
    2. Point 2

You can add further points in the body and, as shown in the middle of the above outline template, subdivide them even further with lowercase roman numerals, regular numbers, lowercase letters, etc. depending on the size of the document and the support needed. Even when drafting a short email, throwing down a few point-form words as soon as you think of them, arranged in the basic three-part message structure, can help you get started, especially if you don’t have time to write the full email as soon as you think of it (or respond to one as soon as you read it) but nonetheless need to get some quick ideas down before you forget so that you can expand on those points later when you have time. For instance, if it occurs to you that subscribing to a snow-removal service might be a good idea and quickly draft an email on the weekend while doing several other winterizing chores, it may look like the one in the left column of Table 12.1 below.

Table 12.1: Brief Message Outline as a Basis for an Email Draft

Message Outline Email Message Draft
  1. Interested
  2. Our details
    1.  address
    2. driveway
  3. Questions:
    1. prepaid cost vs. one-time?
    2. discounts?
Greetings!I am interested in your snow-removal service this winter.

We’re at 5034 Tofino Crescent, and our driveway can fit four cars, so how much would that come to for the prepaid service?

Alternatively, if we decide to do the snow removal ourselves for most of the winter but are in a jam at some point, is it possible to call you for one-time snow removal? How much would that be? Also, do you offer any discounts for first-time customers?

Warm regards,

Christine Cook

However numbered, the hierarchical structure of these notes is like the scaffolding that holds you up as you construct a building from the inside out, knowing that you will just remove that scaffolding when its exterior is complete. Once the outline is in place, you can likewise just delete the numbering and flesh out the points into full sentences, such as those in the email message in the second column of Table 12.1 above, as well as add the other conventional email message components.

The specific architecture of the outline depends on the organizing principle you’ve chosen as appropriate for your writing purpose. In the case of the 10 common organizing principles used throughout the Wolfe Landscaping & Snowblowing website example in Table 12.1 above, Table 12.2 below shows how the outline for each of the first three principles keeps each piece organized prior to being fleshed out into sentences.

Table 12.2: Outline Possibilities Based on Organizing Principles

Organizing Principle Outline
1. Chronology & 5W+H
  1. Past
    1. Founding: who, when, what, and why
    2. Origin and expansion: where, when, and how
  2. Present
    1. Coverage: where
    2. Technology: what
  3. Future: where and when
2. Comparison & Contrast
  1. Main idea: Wolfe is better than the competition
  2. Background context/details: Comparison-Contrast
    1. Comparison: what all companies do—clear your driveway
    2. Contrast: how Wolfe does it better
      1. Follows the city plow
      2. Does your street parking
      3. Offers walkway shoveling and salting
      4. 10% cheaper for base service
  3. Conclusion: Wolfe wins, no contest!
3. Pros & Cons
  1. FAQ: Why get snow removal?
  2. Pros & Cons
    1. Advantages
      1. professional driveway clearing
      2. 24/7 service
      3. saves time
      4. avoids injury
    2. Disadvantages
      1. expense
      2. potential property damage
  3. Concluding recommendation: get the service

As we shall see later in the textbook, outlining is key to organizing other projects such as presentations. If your task is to do a 20-minute presentation, preparing for it involves outlining your topic so that you can plot out the full scope of your speech, then fleshing out that outline into a coherent script with smooth transitions linking each point and subpoint. If it takes you 15 minutes to read that first version of the script out loud, then you simply add a third more material in the form of points in areas that need more development in your outline, then script them out into five more minutes of speech. But if it takes a half hour to read the first version of the script, then you know that you need to pare it down, chopping about a third of its length. Outlining and scripting prior to building a PowerPoint for a 20-minute presentation that would take you a half hour to present would save you the time of making slides for material that would have to be cut out anyway. In this way, outlining keeps you on track to prevent wasted efforts.

Key Takeaway

Begin your draft by outlining the major and minor points in a framework based on the organizing principle appropriate for your purpose so that you can flesh it out into full draft sentences after.


1. Once you receive your “Report Assignment”, try organizing your major and minor points in an outline.



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