How to Write an Outline

January 2013
Updated, December 2014, with link to shorter Article Outline Example.

An outline is a map of a longer work, which can be anything from a brief essay to a full-length book. Authors write outlines at many stages in their projects, but especially when they have completed a fair amount of research and want to figure out how to organize their findings, and again when they have written a draft and want to check it for narrative or logical consistency.

An outline has two goals. The first is to organize a long work into smaller sections. This will be helpful to you as you write, since it will break an intimidating project into shorter, more manageable tasks. And it will help the reader follow your story or argument by drawing her attention to the key episodes or arguments.

The second goal, one sometimes overlooked, is to highlight the major findings of a body of research. The authors of The Craft of Research call such an outline a “point outline,” that is, a list of claims rather than merely a list of topics. They explain, “A point outline helps you see whether your argument hangs together better than does a topic outline. You might not be able to create a point outline until you have a draft, but the sooner you make one to test your argument, the better.”

Classic outlines denote the major sections of a work with upper case Roman numerals. Within each section, a subsection can be denoted with a capital letter, and smaller levels still with Arabic numerals, lower case letters, and, if really necessary, lower case Roman numerals.

For most purposes, two or three levels of headings should be sufficient. In many cases, the highest level headings appear in the final work to signal new sections of a chapter or article. Second-level headings indicate clusters of paragraphs, and the third-level headings become topic sentences for paragraphs.

To show how this looks in practice, I have outlined Christopher W. Wells, “The Road to the Model T: Culture, Road Conditions, and Innovation at the Dawn of the American Motor Age.” Technology and Culture 48, no. 3 (2007): 497–523. doi:10.1353/tech.2007.0142. Most of this outline consists of sentences taken directly from Wells’s article; to avoid clutter I have copied them without quotation marks. Believing this to be fair use, I have not sought permission from the copyright holder, but I have received Professor Wells’s kind permission to repurpose his work in this way.

The titles of the sections (indicated by Roman numerals) are those of the headings in the published article. The lower level headings (capital letters and Arabic numerals) are topic sentences from Wells’s essay, with the capital letters indicating statements that summarize claims fleshed out in the numbered paragraphs. I have also posted an Article Outline Example—a version with only the Roman-numeral and capital-letter headings—which allows the entire article to be outlined in a page and a half.

I crafted these outlines based on the finished work, a process called reverse outlining. (See University of Wisconsin – Madison Writing Center, “Reverse Outlines,” The Writer’s Handbook.) No doubt Wells’s working outline looked different, and perhaps he would outline the final project somewhat differently as well. (Though he tells me my version is pretty close to the one he used as he polished the piece for publication.) An outline need not be an exact map, only a rough guide to tell you where you’ve been, and where you are going.

Please note the following about this outline:

Each section presents a thesis.

I have started each section with its own thesis taken from the essay, one that supports the thesis of the article as a whole. Except for section II, these do not appear at the start of the section in the article. The thesis for section III appears at the tail end of the previous section, while the thesis for section IV appears in the final paragraph of that section. For student papers, and particularly for outlines, I suggest that you place the thesis for each section at the start of that section.

Notice how the section headings themselves suggest claims, not merely topics. Wells could have titled section III, “Cars in Europe and America.” By titling it instead, “Updating the Horseless Carriage, Americanizing the Automobile,” he emphasizes the choices faced by American consumers and designers.

Each paragraph makes a claim.

While this is a narrative history, Wells takes care to make claims for each section of the narrative and in almost every topic sentence. Note his use of transitional words and phrases (more, thus) and contrast words (however, despite, yet, although). When a claim is spread across two paragraphs, he links the two through the repetition of key terms (“vanadium steel” in one topic sentence, “strong, lightweight materials” in the next). Only once does he include a quotation (from Scientific American) in his topic sentence, and he does so when the source makes precisely the analytic argument that he himself wishes to make.

An article is built out of sections, which are built out of 5-paragraph essays.

The article is essentially composed of a series of 5-paragraph essays (designated by capital letters): the building blocks of so much formal writing. Sections (designated by Roman numerals) can vary in length and complexity. But they don’t vary all that much, and the range here (roughly 10-20 paragraphs, or 2-4 subsections) is a good target. So you shouldn’t have to go much beyond the letter D in your outlines.

Key terms hold it all together.

In his introduction, Wells establishes a dialectic between the worldview of the horse-minded and that of the machine-minded. (Section II broadens the latter to the “mobility-minded.”) Note how he keeps coming back to this crucial comparison by repeating terms relating to horse-mindedness or mobility-mindedness.

Christopher W. Wells, “The Road to the Model T: Culture, Road Conditions, and Innovation at the Dawn of the American Motor Age.”

Outlined by Zachary M. Schrag

I. Introduction

Thesis statement: Why did so many Americans buy Model T’s, making them the center of the American automotive revolution? Many scholars, such as Rudi Volti, argue that the Model T “embodied few technological innovations, but was sturdy, reliable, and easy to drive by the standards of the time.” In fact, the Model T’s design created a new type of motor vehicle—the lightweight automobile—that transformed the U.S. market from one of disagreement and division into a broad mass market focused largely (if not exclusively) on a single technology. In doing so, it reconciled two seemingly irreconcilable worldviews, one forged in the world of the horse, and the other guided by enthusiasm for machines.

[ZMS note: here I have reorganized some of Wells’s phrases to fit my thesis-statement template. Wells does not claim that Volti and others are wrong; rather, he offers a more complete explanation of the Model T’s popularity, arguing that its design was more innovative than Volti suggests. Wells presents a dialectic of opposing forces–horses and machines–and shows how the Model T resolved that contest by embodying the best of both.]

II. Competing Visions, Specialized Designs (16 paragraphs)

Thesis: As horseless carriages appeared more frequently on U.S. streets, turn-of-the-century observers debated the role that such expensive new machines should play in everyday life.

A. Most early commentators on horseless carriages fell into one of two broad groups: the “horse-minded” who compared motor vehicles specifically to horses, and the “mobility-minded” who compared them to all other forms of transportation.

1. Horse-minded observers voiced a variety of opinions about the new machines.

2. The predictions of mobility-minded observers were more varied.

3. Mobility-minded pragmatists were more forgiving, arguing that the machines should not be blamed for whatever problems accompanied their use.

4. A small group of mobility-minded utopians discerned limitless potential in motor vehicles.

5. At the dawn of the industry, however, engineers were unable to design motor vehicles flexible enough to perform the diverse tasks that early motorists desired.

B. The fact that designers chose from three major motor types—steam, electric, and gasoline—underscores both the diversity and the uncertainties of early horseless-carriage design.

1. Writers in the popular and trade presses assessed electric, steam, and gasoline engines differently.

2. With turn-of-the-century manufacturers jockeying for marketplace advantage, horseless-carriage enthusiasts peered into a murky future.

3. The uncertainty generated by the range of specialized motor-vehicle designs at the turn of the century casts doubt on the inevitable triumph of gasoline technology, a belief often shared by historians.

C. The declining importance of the market for commercial motor vehicles, such as urban trucks and taxis, and the rapid expansion of the market for private, recreational vehicles, helped cause manufacturers and consumers alike to develop an overwhelming preference for gasoline-powered vehicles

1. The emphasis that successful manufacturers placed on catering to personal pleasure suggests that the gasoline carriage triumphed in the United States because elites seeking recreational vehicles comprised the largest market for motor vehicles.

2. Viewed from the perspective of elite consumers looking for “adventure machines,” the internal-combustion engine indeed seemed superior to its steam and electric competitors.

3. The ability to escape the city to motor across the countryside held a powerful appeal for many new owners, giving the technology an almost magical aura.

III. Updating the Horseless Carriage, Americanizing the Automobile (19 paragraphs)

Thesis: Despite its strengths, the adventure-machine thesis does not fully explain the development of automotive technology in the United States, where the split between mobility-minded and horse-minded buyers put the evolution of automotive technologies on a very different trajectory from the adventure-oriented path followed in Europe.

A. Europe, and particularly France and Germany, embraced gasoline carriages earlier and more fully than did the United States.

1. The Mercedes-style automobile opened new vistas for power and speed, pushing engineers beyond the design considerations that prevailed for horse-drawn carriages.

2. According to Scientific American, the nation’s most popular magazine devoted to mechanical innovations, Americans were gaining “an instinctive appreciation of the fact that an automobile belongs more to the class of the locomotive than that of the carriage.”

3. Reflecting this new conceptualization of “proper” motor-vehicle design, U.S. manufacturers quickly emulated the French-style automobile after its debut at the 1902 New York Motor Show. ”

B. Like most cultural imports, however, the social meanings that the French attached to the automobile were subject to subtle change when translated into the American idiom.

1. A large part of the U.S. market was still horse-minded, however, and rejected the paradigm-changing French-style automobile in favor of refined versions of the horseless carriage.

2. Two new types of gasoline carriages, both of which cost significantly less than Mercedes-style automobiles, claimed growing numbers of horse-minded buyers after 1902.

3. That runabouts and high-wheelers captured a growing share of the market even as technical opinion coalesced around the Mercedes-style automobile should give pause to those who would conclude that the internal-combustion engine triumphed simply because it was technologically superior, or even because it made the best “adventure machine.”

4. Measured against a horse’s cost and capabilities, many Americans—particularly those from rural areas—chose the cheap, utilitarian options provided by runabouts and high-wheelers over powerful Mercedes-style automobiles, fashionable electrics designed for city streets, or complicated steamers.

C. Perhaps, however, the most important factor explaining why so many horse-minded consumers chose gasoline-powered runabouts and high-wheelers lies in an important factor that all manufacturers had to address: the poor state of U.S. roads.

1. For Mercedes-style cars true to French designs and built for speed on smooth surfaces rather than for durability on rough ones, the bruising conditions on U.S. country roads initially limited their utility—and thus their market share.

2. The problem grew from the European practice of placing the automobile’s chassis close to the road to increase stability during rapid cornering.

3. For mobility-minded motorists interested primarily in high-speed racing, the dearth of good roads created major problems.

4. Yet securing good roads, even on a small scale, proved a slow and herculean task, and many elite—and impatient—motorists sought other solutions.

5. Expensive trips in search of smooth surfaces were at best a stopgap solution, and few elite racing enthusiasts had Vanderbilt’s resources to construct expensive private highways.

D. Engineers thus began adapting Mercedes-style automobiles to U.S. conditions by raising the chassis to provide greater road clearance.

1. The emergence of a distinctly American touring car based on French gasoline technology increased the average cost of automobiles in the United States.

2. At the same time and despite the emerging consensus that the modified Mercedes represented a superior design, the market for comparatively low-priced runabouts and high-wheelers also expanded, albeit more slowly.

3. With one eye on the potential profitability of the low-priced market and another on the strengths of the Americanized Mercedes style, some manufacturers began to develop stripped-down versions of the touring car.

IV. Merging Worldviews in Ford’s “Universal Car” (9 paragraphs)

Thesis: To label the Model T “the Universal Car” was grandiose marketing hype and yet, as a description of the first automobile to appeal to horse- and mobility-minded consumers alike, it contained more than a little truth.

A. Although the prospect of an inexpensive, powerful, lightweight, full-sized automobile had wide appeal, automakers struggled to design such vehicles in the half-decade before 1908.

1. Because increased power necessitated a heavier frame and thicker, stronger parts, weight-to-power ratios—a rough measure of performance—stabilized among better-quality vehicles in the neighborhood of 80:1.

2. Despite the difficulties that had to be surmounted, Henry Ford embraced the vision of a lightweight automobile.

3. For all its success, however, the Model N was still a two-passenger runabout, and Ford believed his company’s future lay in its ability to solve the riddle of how to build a lightweight, full-sized, amply powered automobile.

B. After much trial and error, Ford’s team developed a design—dubbed the Model T when it went into production—that finally seemed to thwart the circular curse of weight and power.

1. Ford’s confidence that he could do so grew partly from his belief that a workable solution to the weight-to-power dilemma lay in vanadium steel, a tough and light new alloy then commercially unavailable in the United States.

2. Coupling strong, lightweight materials with a four-cylinder, 20-horsepower engine, the Model T’s 100-inch wheelbase—a good deal shorter than that of other Americanized touring automobiles—carried only 1,200 pounds.

3. As such, the Model T delivered the first true Mercedes-style adventure machine to the high end of the low-cost market.

4. Although the Model T excelled as an adventure machine, it also featured functional, utilitarian characteristics that Ford emphasized to appeal to horse-minded consumers.

V. Conclusion

The Model T’s design allowed it to bridge the technological and social chasm that divided mobility- and horse-minded motorists—a signal accomplishment. Because of this fusion, the distinctions between horse- and mobility-minded motorists slowly began to blur and disappear.