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Handbook for Historians

Guide to writing research papers for the History Department at Le Moyne College

How to Create an Outline

The outline is an organized blueprint of the material presented in your paper. Writers who make use of outlines are unlikely to exaggerate one aspect of the subject at the expense of others, or to drift off into tantalizing but irrelevant subtopics. Readers appreciate a well developed outline because it provides a detailed table of contents and alerts them to the path the paper will follow. 

Formal outlines usually employ Roman numerals, Roman letters, and Arabic numerals, as we see below:

  1. Main Idea
    1. Sub-idea
    2. Sub-idea
      1. Example of a sub-idea
      2. Example of a sub-idea
        1. Detail
        2. Detail
  2. Main Idea
    1. Sub-idea
      1. Example of a sub-idea
        1. Detail
        2. Detail
    2. Sub-idea
      1. Example of a sub-idea
      2. Example of a sub-idea

and so on . . . till your conclusion.

Begin by listing the main ideas you want to get across, or main points you wish to make.  These will become your Roman numeral headings. Next, divide each of these into sub-ideas or subsections, labeled with a capital letter. Make sure that you have at least two subsections under each main heading; it is illogical to “divide” a section into one subdivision. Then, for each sub-idea, list various examples, bits of evidence, and information, numbering them with Arabic numerals. If necessary, these can be divided still further into details, preceded by lower case letters. Use either whole sentences or phrases, but be consistent throughout your outline: stick with one or the other. For a ten-page paper, a good comprehensive outline would normally be between one to two pages long, typewritten and double-spaced.

Outline Example

Here is an example of an outline for a HST paper.