8.1 Creating an Outline

The Outline

When you write, you need to organize your ideas in an order that makes sense. Order refers to your choice of what to present first, second, third, and so on in your writing. The order you pick closely relates to your purpose for writing that particular assignment. You may want to group your supporting ideas effectively to convince readers that your point of view on an issue is well reasoned and worthy of belief. In longer reports, you may organize different sections in different ways so that your purpose stands out clearly and all parts of the report work together to consistently develop your main point.

When you write, your goal is not only to complete an assignment but also to write for a specific purpose—perhaps to inform, to explain, to persuade, or a combination of these purposes. Your purpose for writing should always be in the back of your mind, because it will help you decide which pieces of information belong together and how you will order them. In other words, choose the order that will most effectively fit your purpose and support your main point.

Table 8.1.1: Order and Purpose shows the connection between order and purpose.

Table 8.1.1 Order and Purpose
Order Purpose
Chronological Order
  • To explain the history of an event or a topic
  • To tell a story or relate an experience
  • To explain how to do or make something
  • To explain the steps in a process
Spatial Order
  • To help readers visualize something as you want them to see it
  • To create a main impression using the senses (sight, touch, taste, smell, and sound)
Order of Importance
  • To persuade or convince
  • To rank items by their importance, benefit, or significance

While there is no universal way for a report to be developed, conventions relating to the organization of the detail has evolved over time and is recognized in all business contexts, whether you are creating a direct or indirect document.  See Table 8.1.2 for an overview of three basic document structures.

Table 8.1.2 Basic Report Structures

Direct Method Direct Method 2 Indirect Method
Introduction with purpose statement

Background

Details

Conclusion/Recommendations

References

Introduction with purpose statement and background

Conclusion/Recommendations

Details

References

General introduction suggesting the subject or problem

Background

Details

Purpose statement/main message

Conclusion/Recommendations

References

Before writing any report, it is important to map out your ideas in an outline. An outline is a written plan that serves as a skeleton for the paragraphs and document sections you write. Later, when you draft paragraphs in the next stage of the writing process, you will add support to create “flesh” and “muscle” for your report.  The outline is an essential tool in discovering the overall progression of ideas and planning your research and visual aids.

When creating outlines, writers generally go through three stages: a scratch outline, an informal or topic outline, and a formal topic or sentence outline: 

  • Scratch outline: The scratch outline is generated by taking what you have come up with in your freewriting process and organizing the information into a structure that is easy for you to understand and follow
  • Informal outline:  An informal outline goes a step further and adds topic sentences, a purpose statement, and some preliminary information you have found through research.
  • Formal outline: A formal outline is a detailed guide that shows how all your supporting ideas relate to each other. It helps you distinguish between ideas that are of equal importance and ones that are of lesser importance.

There are two types of formal outlines: the topic outline and the sentence outline. You format both types of formal outlines in the same way.

  • Place your introduction and purpose statement at the beginning, under Roman numeral I.
  • Use Roman numerals (II, III, IV, V, etc.) to identify main points that develop the purpose statement.
  • Use capital letters (A, B, C, D, etc.) to divide your main points into parts.
  • Use Arabic numerals (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, etc.) if you need to subdivide any As, Bs, or Cs into smaller parts.
  • End with the final Roman numeral expressing your idea for your conclusion.

Here is what the skeleton of a traditional formal outline looks like. The indention helps clarify how the ideas are related.

  1. Introduction → Purpose statement
  2. Main point 1becomes the topic sentence of body paragraph 1
    • Supporting detail →becomes a support sentence of section 1
      • Subpoint
      • Subpoint
    • Supporting detail
      • Subpoint
      • Subpoint
    • Supporting detail
      • Subpoint
      • Subpoint
  3. Main point 2becomes the topic sentence of section 2 [same use of subpoints as with Main point 1]
    • Supporting detail
    • Supporting detail
    • Supporting detail
  4. Main point 3becomes the topic sentence of section 3 [same use of subpoints as with Main points 1&2]
    • Supporting detail
    • Supporting detail
    • Supporting detail
  5. Conclusion
  6. References
Constructing Informal or Topic Outlines

An informal topic outline is the same as a sentence outline except you use words or phrases instead of complete sentences. Words and phrases keep the outline short and easier to comprehend. All the headings, however, must be written in parallel structure.

Step 1:  Create a purpose statement for your report

To plan your business report, you will begin by writing a draft purpose statement.  A purpose statement is a concise presentation of the key idea you will develop in your report. It is the focal point for the development of ideas in your report.  Write the purpose statement at the top of your outline.  You can revise this later as your research and writing evolves.

The rest of your outline will include the main topics and sub-points you will develop in each paragraph or section of the report.

Step 2: Identify the main ideas that relate to your purpose statement

Based on the reading and research you have already done, list the main topics that you plan to discuss in your report.  Consider carefully the most logical order, and how each point supports your purpose statement. These topics will become main ideas that will be developed.

Step 3: Identify the supporting points and evidence for each topic

Each topic  will be supported by supporting points and evidence that you have compiled from other sources. Each piece of information from another source must be cited, whether you have quoted directly, paraphrased, or summarized the information.

Step 4: Create your outline

Outlines are usually created using a structure that clearly indicates topics and supporting points.  In the example below, main ideas are numbered, while the supporting ideas are indented one level and labelled with letters.  Each level of supporting detail is indented further.

Here is the informal topic outline that Mariah constructed for the report she is developing and that has been partially adapted for this text. Her purpose is to inform, and her audience is a general audience of her fellow college students. Notice how Mariah begins with her purpose statement. She then arranges her main points and supporting details in outline form using short phrases in parallel grammatical structure.

1. Introduction

1.1. Purpose statement: This report offers an overview of the available choices in digital technologies along with their specifications.

2. E-book readers

2.1. Books easy to access and carry around

2.1.1. Electronic downloads

2.1.2 Storage in memory for hundreds of books

2.2. An expanding market

2.2.1 E-book readers from booksellers

2.2.2 E-book readers from electronics and computer companies

2.3. Limitations of current e-book readers

2.3.1. Incompatible features from one brand to the next

2.3.2. Borrowing and sharing e-books

3. Digital cameras taking over from film cameras

3.1. Three types of digital cameras

3.1.1. Compact digital cameras

3.1.2. Single lens reflex cameras, or SLRs

3.1.3. Cameras that combine the best features of both

3.2.  The confusing “megapixel wars”

3.3. The zoom lens battle

4. Flat screen televisions

4.1. 1080p vs. 768p

4.2. Plasma screens vs. LCDs

4.3. Home media centres

5. Conclusion

5.1. How to choose wisely

6. Reference

Writing at Work

Word processing programs generally have an automatic numbering feature that can be used to prepare outlines. This feature automatically sets indents and lets you use the tab key to arrange information just as you would in an outline. Although in business this style might be acceptable, in college or university your instructor might have different requirements. Teach yourself how to customize the levels of outline numbering in your word processing program to fit your writing context.

References

Cruthers, A. (2020). Organizing reports. Business writing for everyone. https://kpu.pressbooks.pub/businesswriting/chapter/organizing-reports/

Horkof, T.  (2021). Outlining. Writing for success: 1st H5P Edition. CC 4.0. OER. BCcampus.  https://opentextbc.ca/writingforsuccessh5p/chapter/outlining/

Kwantlen Polytechnic University Learning Centres.  (2018). Creating an Outline. University 101.  OER. CC 4.0 https://pressbooks.bccampus.ca/studystrategizesucceed/chapter/create-an-outline/

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Technical Writing Essentials by Suzan Last is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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