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Wednesday, July 27, 2011

How to Create a Formal Outline

About a month ago, I promised to follow up my blog post about informal outlines with one about formal outlines.  It’s taken me a while but here is that subsequent blog post.  Never let it be said I am not a woman of my word!

When a teacher or supervisor asks you for a formal outline, she or he is requesting a document that has very specific formatting rules. Some rules will differ according to the kind of project you're working on and any specific instructions given to you, but there are a few general rules you should be aware of that govern all formal outlines.

  • Items should follow logical order.
  • The higher the heading level, the more general the statement.
  • Every “A” must be accompanied by a “B”.
  • Use either sentences or phrases in your outline, but not both.
  • Sentences are followed by periods; phrases are NOT.
  • Items must be in parallel structure.
  • The outline should be consistent.

Items should follow logical order.

First of all, make sure that the content of your outline is logical before you start nitpicking on the format. Do the headings make sense in the order you have placed them?  Are items that are closely related placed together for a more natural flow of ideas?

The higher the heading level, the more general the statement.

Don’t let this rule confuse you.  All this guideline says is to make your subheadings increase in detail with each subsequent level. It’s easier to visualize the rule this way:

I. General statement
     A. More detailed statement
           1. Even more detailed statement

To further clarify the levels of specificity, here is a short example. Notice the increase in the amount of detail supplied the “deeper” the level of the point.  Remember that you need to maintain consistency in the level of specificity you have given each level.  In other words, if this example had a point “B,” it would have to match point “A” in its level of detail.

I. Anime is worth watching.
     A. Anime accurately conveys life truths.
           1.  Bastard demonstrates that bad things can and will happen to good people.
          2. Elfen Leid shows the need to face one's past in order to learn from and move past it.

Every “A” must be accompanied by a “B”.

If the example given for the previous rule were a completed outline, then it would violate this guideline. If there is an "A" in your outline, there must be a "B." The same goes for "I" and "II," "1" and "2," "i" and "ii," and "a" and "b." The reason for this rule is logical: a point cannot be sub-divided into less than two subpoints. To give a main point only one subpoint would be to divide it by one, which results in the same main point, so the subpoint is redundant.

Use either sentences or phrases in your outline, but not both.

As self-explanatory as this rule is, it is one that SO many people forget when writing outlines. Please, please, please do not mix sentences and phrases in your outlines. If your first main point is a complete sentence, then let that format guide the rest of your main points and subpoints. Sometimes your outline instructions will specify that the points be written as phrases or sentences, but usually the choice is left up to you. If you want your work to look professional, make sure you choose to write in either sentences or phrases and then stick to it.

Sentences are followed by periods; phrases are NOT.

Hopefully this rule is also self-explanatory. Making sure you go back and check to make sure you haven't placed a period at the end of any phrases and that all your sentences are followed by periods is one of those final touches that will make your outline look professional. Because outlines are so textually sparse, readers' eyes WILL notice when some lines have periods and others don't.

Items must be in parallel structure.

Parallel structure is, in short, a similar pattern of words. Again, consistency is the key. If you use one form of phrasing your points, then you need to stick to that format for that heading level. This is another rule that is best explained through illustration.

I. Things to do in the summer  
     A. Indoor activities 
           1. video game playing

           2. reading 
     B. Outdoor activities
           1. swimming

           2. surfing 
II. Things to do in the winter
     A. Indoor activities 
           1. video game playing 
           2. reading
     B. Outdoor activities
           1. skiing 
           2. camping

Notice that the heading levels remain in parallel structure. I matches up with the format of II; A matches up with the format of B; 1 matches up with the format of 2.  Since the activities listed in the outline end in –ing, they ALL must end in –ing for that sublevel.  Listing “reading” and then “to play volleyball” as summertime activities would be an error in parallel structure.  This is another area in which you can easily mess up your formal outline without realizing it. Just pay attention to the way you word your main points and subpoints and you should be fine.

The outline should be consistent.

Consistency has been a part of each and every rule thus far, but it's important enough that I wanted to emphasize it one last time. The power of consistency is that it makes your readers comfortable; they know what to expect in the formatting so it fades into the background and they can focus their attention on the content of your outline. If you make an error but make it consistently, sometimes your reader won't even notice! It's when you start changing things constantly that you call attention to how you are writing instead of what you are writing and you divide your reader's attention.

Final words…

Remember that there is no “one size fits all” recipe for creating a formal outline.  The adjustments you make to your outline will depend on the style guide you are using, the industry you are in, and the instructions your professor/boss gives you.  For example, some professors cannot stand to see the words “Introduction” and “Conclusion” on a formal outline, whereas for others it is perfectly acceptable to include those headings.

Photo credit: James Bowe

11 comments:

"I am not a woman of my word!" :))

 Thanks, Agentx! That means a lot to me :)

"Each A must be accompanied by a 'B'." That's bullshit, sometimes there's only one sub point I need.  

still semi confused my teacher said we needed a thesis statement

 No worries, Achongling! If your teacher asks for a thesis statement, it actually precedes the outline. You write you heading (if it's MLA style, you write your name, professor's name, class name, and due date each on a separate line at the top left hand-side of your paper), your assignment's title, your thesis statement after the underlined words "Thesis Statement:", then your outline.

Check out this link for an example http://www.tcc.edu/students/resources/writcent/HANDOUTS/writing/MLA/outline.htm .

Thank you for helping me with this. I know this sounds irresponsible, but I didn't take notes in class when my teacher went over how to write an outline, so here I am. I can justify myself, though. I was behind, so I had to catch up with my work.

Do I still underline novel titles and put short stories in quotations when I write a formal essay? Thanks!

Not bullshit! Actually the instructions from my 9th grade English teacher!

How to be a true Christian is this a good thesis

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