Content writing

How to Write an Outline in 4 Simple Steps

August 15, 2023

So you want to write an article or story but don't know where to start?

Outlining is a simple process that gives your writing direction and purpose. An outline breaks down your topic into an easy-to-follow structure which you can then flesh out with details and examples for each section.

In just 4 simple steps, you'll have an outline that serves as a roadmap for your writing. Before you know it, you'll have crafted a first draft and be well on your way to completing your writing project.

What Is an Outline and Why Is It Important?

An outline is just a quick sketch of how you want to structure your writing. It shows the order of your ideas and how they relate to each other. Outlines are important because they save you time and make the writing process less overwhelming.

Here's an example of a blog outline about training your dog:

I. Introduction

  • Hook: Grab the reader's attention with a relatable dog training scenario.
  • Introduction to the importance of dog training and its benefits.

II. Understanding Your Dog's Behavior

  • Discuss the basics of dog behavior and communication.
  • Explain the importance of positive reinforcement and trust-building.

III. Essential Dog Training Techniques

  • Teach commands like sit, stay, come, and lie down.
  • Provide step-by-step instructions for each command, along with helpful tips.
  • Address common behavior issues such as barking, chewing, and jumping.

IV. Advanced Training and Resources

  • Introduce more advanced training techniques like leash walking and off-leash training.
  • Highlight fun tricks that can be taught to impress friends and family.
  • Provide recommendations for training tools, books, courses, and professional trainers.

V. Conclusion

  • Summarize the key points covered in the blog.
  • Encourage readers to start training their dogs and enjoy the journey.

With an outline in hand, you've got a roadmap to guide you as you write the full draft. Stick closely to your outline, and you'll have an easy time turning your ideas into a cohesive work.

Did you know? You can generate comprehensive outlines using AI. Try it here.
AI-generated image by Hypotenuse AI using the prompt: professional photograph of a golden retriever
AI-generated image by Hypotenuse AI using the prompt: professional photograph of a golden retriever in natural sunlight, nikon d850, outdoors, sharp focus, depth of field

Step 1: Determine the Purpose of Your Outline

The first step to writing an effective outline is determining why you need one in the first place. An outline serves to organize your thoughts and give structure to your writing. Are you outlining a research paper, book, article, or something else? Identifying the purpose will help determine how detailed your outline needs to be.

An essay or paper should begin by outlining an introduction that establishes context and sets the stage for what follows. To start, sketch an introductory framework or generate an introduction using AI to lay the foundation for the rest of your work. For a book, focus on plotting character arcs, conflicts, settings, and chapters. An outline for an article could be less detailed but should capture the essence of what you want to convey in each section or paragraph.

Some other reasons you might create an outline include:

  • Organizing complex ideas or topics into a coherent flow and structure. Outlines make the writing process less overwhelming by breaking a large project into manageable chunks.
  • Ensuring important points are covered. An outline acts as a road map so you don't miss key elements or go off on tangents.
  • Saving time. Developing an outline first helps avoid wasting time writing drafts that don't have a clear direction or purpose. With an outline, you have a guide to follow.
  • Improving readability and flow. A good outline leads to good structure and organization. Your writing will be clear, concise and logical.
  • Gaining new perspectives. Creating an outline makes you think about relationships between ideas and helps identify holes or weak areas in your content or argument. You can then strengthen these before drafting.

In summary, determine why you need an outline and how detailed it should be. A well-crafted outline paves the way for articulate, compelling, and cohesive writing. Know your purpose and let that guide how you construct your outline.

Step 2: Identify Major Topics and Ideas

Once you have your topic and audience in mind, it’s time to gather your thoughts. The outlining process starts by identifying your main ideas and most important topics to cover.

Consider the primary themes or subtopics you want to delve into in your outline. For instance, if you're outlining the aspects of AI safety, your main topics might be:

  • Understanding the concept of AI safety
  • The importance of AI safety in today’s tech-driven world
  • Potential risks and challenges posed by AI
  • Strategies for mitigating AI safety risks
  • The role of regulations in AI safety
  • The future of AI safety

Subtopics and Supporting Points

Under each major topic, identify 3-5 subtopics or supporting points you wish to discuss. Elaborate on each main topic with details, examples, explanations, or instructions. Think about any key terms, phrases, or questions people might search for related to AI safety.

For the ‘Potential risks and challenges posed by AI’ topic, subtopics might be:

  • Identifying different types of AI risks—both technical and ethical
  • The potential for AI to be misused or manipulated
  • The challenge of bias in AI algorithms

Consider how you can make each subtopic as informative and comprehensive as possible for your reader. Incorporate visuals like infographics or videos if they would enhance the section.

Once you have the major topics and subtopics mapped out, you’ll have a solid outline to build upon. Flesh out each section with details and examples, and you’ll have the makings of a helpful article. The key is to start with a solid outline that captures your most important ideas and provides a clear roadmap to follow.

Step 3: Organize the Details Under the Major Topics

Once you have your topic and main points outlined, it’s time to organize the details under each major topic. This step involves fleshing out your outline with the key details, examples, and explanations that support each main point.

Under each section in your outline, list the subpoints that elaborate on and support that main topic. Consider using H3 headings for important subpoints. For example:


  • Hook statement to grab readers' attention
  • Brief background information
  • Thesis statement/main argument

Main Topic 1

Subtopic 1.1

  • Supporting point
  • Evidence or example

Subtopic 1.2

  • Supporting point
  • Evidence or example

Conclusion/summary of Main Topic 1

Main Topic 2

Subtopic 2.1

  • Supporting point
  • Evidence or example

Subtopic 2.2

  • Supporting point
  • Evidence or example

Conclusion/summary of Main Topic 2

(Repeat this structure for as many main topics as you have)


  • Recap of thesis statement/main argument
  • Summary of main points
  • Final thoughts/call to action

For each subpoint, determine what examples, experiences, statistics, facts, quotes, anecdotes or other details help support it. Flesh out your outline with summaries, examples and explanations under each subpoint. Think about including real-world examples and relatable analogies or stories to help illustrate your points.

Aim for 3 to 5 subpoints under each main topic. Be concise but thorough. The details you include in your outline will form the rough draft or starting point for the actual written content. The more thought and detail you put into outlining, the easier it will be to then expand into full paragraphs and sections.

Step 4: Revise and Refine Your Outline

Once you have the main topics and subtopics of your outline figured out, it’s time to start revising and refining. Go over your outline with a critical eye, looking for ways to improve clarity, flow, and coherence.

Review and rearrange topics

Double check that your topics are ordered in a logical way that makes sense for your particular outline. For example, in a process outline about baking cookies, the “mixing ingredients” step should come before “baking the cookies.” Rearrange any out-of-order topics into a logical sequence.

Add or delete topics

Review each topic and subtopic to make sure you’ve included all important ideas. Add any missing topics or details. Also look for any unnecessary or redundant parts that can be deleted to streamline your outline.

Ensure parallel phrasing

For similar topics at the same level, use the same phrasing or grammatical form. This helps create coherence and makes your outline easier to follow. For example, if one subtopic reads “Gathering ingredients,” the next subtopic should also start with a gerund, like “Preheating the oven.”

Check for concise language

Evaluate each topic and description to make sure it’s written in a clear, concise way. Remove any unnecessary words or phrases. For example, instead of “In this step, you will need to gather all of the required baking ingredients for making the cookies,” simply write “Gather ingredients.”

Double check formatting

Carefully review the formatting of your outline. Make sure headings are properly styled, topics and subtopics are aligned correctly, and all headings and topics are followed by a blank line. It should be easy to distinguish main topics, subtopics, sections, and subsections at a glance.

AI-generated image by Hypotenuse AI using the prompt: closeup photograph of a plate of cookies, professional photography, 8k, high resolution, highly detailed
AI-generated image by Hypotenuse AI using the prompt: closeup photograph of a plate of cookies, professional photography, 8k, high resolution, highly detailed

Going over your outline with fresh eyes will help you identify areas that could be clearer or more cohesive. Take your time revising and refining—it will result in a much stronger outline and save you time in the long run. With some polishing, you'll have an outline that provides a helpful roadmap for your writing!

Types of Outlines: Formal vs Informal

When it comes to outlining, you have the choice between a formal or informal structure. For most everyday purposes, an informal outline will suffice. It's quick, easy, and allows for flexibility as you write.

Informal Outline

An informal outline is quick and easy. You just jot down your main ideas and supporting points in a loose structure. It's flexible and meant as a simple guide to keep you on track as you write.

To create an informal outline:

  1. Decide on your topic and audience. Consider who you are writing for and what you want to convey. The more specific and focused your topic, the easier it will be to create an outline.
  2. Brainstorm your main ideas. Come up with three to five key points that you want to address in your writing.
  3. Arrange your ideas in a logical order. Determine how your main points relate to each other and establish a flow. Consider whether a chronological sequence or a step-by-step process would work best for your topic.
  4. Add supporting points to each main idea. These supporting points provide depth and detail to your outline.

Formal Outline

For academic papers or presentations, a formal outline may be required. This type of outline has a rigid and logical structure. Main ideas are organized and grouped to the same level of significance or importance. Parallel grammatical form is used for points on the same level.

When creating a formal outline, you will need to consider the following:

  1. Main headings: Use Roman numerals (I, II, III) to represent the main topics or sections of your content.
  2. Subheadings: Use capital letters (A, B, C) to denote the subtopics or supporting points within each main heading.
  3. Supporting details: Utilize Arabic numerals (1, 2, 3) to further elaborate on the subheadings and provide specific information or evidence.

If done right, a formal outline can make the actual writing or presentation process a breeze. The key is organizing your thoughts coherently before diving in. Take the time to craft a thoughtful formal outline and you'll reap the benefits later!

Outline FAQs: Common Questions Answered

Here are some of the most common outline FAQs and their answers:

How detailed should my outline be?

This depends on your personal preferences and the length/complexity of your writing project. For a short piece like a blog post, a simple outline with just your main points and a few subpoints for each may suffice. For a longer research paper, you’ll want a more comprehensive outline that spells out each paragraph topic, includes sources, etc. As a general rule of thumb, more detail is better since you can always condense your outline later.

Should I outline before or after researching?

Ideally, do some initial research to determine your main points and structure, then create an outline. You can then do more focused research to flesh out each section of your outline with details, examples, quotes, statistics, etc. An outline without any research lacks substance, while research without direction from an outline can be inefficient and overwhelming.

Do I have to stick strictly to my outline?

No, an outline is meant to be a guide, not a straitjacket. As you start writing, you may find that certain points need to be reordered, expanded upon or cut. You may come across new information that needs to be added or think of better examples and metaphors to get your point across. Feel free to adjust your outline as needed to create the strongest piece of writing possible. The key is to not make major structural changes without re-outlining first.

When should you use an outline?

An outline can be incredibly useful in a variety of writing scenarios. Here are some instances when you should consider using an outline:

  1. Writing long or complex content to structure your ideas.
  2. Working on group projects to align everyone's understanding.
  3. Preparing speeches or presentations to stay on track.
  4. Studying, to organize and understand your material better.
  5. Managing time effectively, as it makes writing more efficient.

Remember, the purpose of an outline is to help you organize your thoughts, maintain focus, and create a structured plan for your writing. It's a flexible tool that can be adjusted as needed throughout the writing process.S

What are some tips for effective outlining?

Here are a few tips to keep in mind:

  • Use parallel grammatical forms for outline points (all sentences, all phrases or all fragments).
  • Keep your outline balanced by distributing points evenly under each main topic.
  • Use coordination for points of equal importance and subordination for less important points.
  • Number the different levels in your outline for easier organization and navigation.
  • Review and revise your outline before drafting to catch any gaps, redundancies or lack of logical flow.

Following these outline FAQs and tips will help ensure you have a smooth writing process and produce a clear, well-structured draft.


So there you have it, four simple steps to crafting an effective outline. Now you're equipped with a roadmap to organize your thoughts and research into a cohesive flow. With some practice, outlining can become second nature and help make the writing process that much smoother.

You've got the outline for success, now go make it happen!

P.S. Unsure where to start? Try our AI outline generator for free.

Content Writer
Alex is a seasoned writer responsible for creating valuable, well-researched content for various industries like tech and ecommerce.

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