Outlining Methods

Today, we’ve compiled some great outlining methods for writers to use in any kind of project, whether it be major projects, a final paper, a story, etc. These methods are detailed below, so enjoy!

The Synopsis Outline

 This outline is helpful when you need to ensure that you are writing a cohesive paper.

Write a brief summary of your essay that concisely presents only the most important points of your argument. Highlighting your key focal points will allow you to stay on-topic and omit any information that is irrelevant to your topic. Think of it as a “highlight reel” of your argument or a “recap” on ESPN/Sports Center.

  1. Start with the basics. Lay out the ‘building blocks’ of your argument.

Explicate the purpose of your discussion — write a clear thesis and/or topic sentence.[1]

Make a mental note of your paper’s audience; who is your reader?

  1. Identify any major connections between the main components of your supporting claims.
  2. Examine any underlying elements of your essay.

Consider thematic aspects; determine whether you have used any rhetorical devices or a specific theoretical lens that guide your discussion. If so, adhere to that approach when further developing your position.

  1. Consider the implications of your subject matter.

Does your conclusion effectively communicate the desired outcome of your discussion?   Consider the impacts of the presented outcomes.

By condensing your thoughts into a short summary, you give yourself a chance to realize what you want to focus on most, which allows you to get rid of what isn’t necessary to developing your argument. You highlight your main theme, topic, idea, or premise to demonstrate that the content of your paper’s discussion is original, interesting, and well-developed.

The In-Depth Outline

   Details, details, details! This outline is helpful for those who need to write a draft ‘on-the-fly.’

Write a detailed, descriptive summary of each point you intend to present in your argument. Pin down important details of your position. Define any/all key words and technical jargon and organize your thoughts.

Depending on the length requirements of your paper, you might need

to aim to write (up to) 10,000 words for this kind of pre-writing/outline.

Potentially prioritize outlining the elemental features of your paper like this:

  1. Sourcing your information (e.g. research, references)
  2. Developing your discussion
  3. Defining Premise(s) and approach
  4. Organizing your thoughts, details, supporting evidence, etc.



The ‘Journey’ Method

   When you want some ‘wiggle-room’ while drafting.

Discover the link from Point-A to Point-B as you write, research, and develop your draft. Identify your introduction and your (desired) conclusion. Write only these out and develop the body of the paper as you go.

  1. Define your main premise, topic, or focus.
  2. Map out the desired direction of the essay before developing a supporting argument.








       To make sure your supporting details stem from your topic and are equally effective.

Draw ‘tree-branch’ ideas, that ‘stem’ from your main topic, to visualize the interconnectedness of your thesis, main points, and supporting details. Seeing where your details fit best will help you logically organize your discussion and identify any areas of your argument that are under-developed.

Any tree-branches that are ‘sparse’ indicate the need for more information/support … (These are the branches that have less ‘leaves’ (supporting details) than the others) … You can either choose to (a): further develop that branch/point, or (b): omit that specific concept from your evidentiary claims. Whether these points are removed or further explained is up to you.


The Snowflake Method

Helps you focus on getting the ‘basics’ (fundamental points) before expanding on your topic.

See the ‘how-to’ guide here:



The Reverse Outline

Reverse outlining is an extraordinarily magical outlining method which can help any writer make sure their organization is on point, and, at least in my opinion, is one the simplest ways out outlining a paper after-the-fact.

  1. Reverse outlining only really works if you have a draft already written.
  2. Go paragraph by paragraph and pull out the main topics
    1. Start with the intro, look at your thesis. What did you argue? What were the main points you said you were going to discuss?
    2. Continue with this for each paragraph
    3. The conclusion can be tricky, as they all seem to look different. My best advice is so make sure you bring back your overall argument in a way that is not a replication of your thesis, or introduction. Tie everything together and point your reader to either a call for action, or for more research to be done.
  3. Look at the list you’ve created, are there any overlap between paragraphs? Are you repeating yourself?
  4. This is where cut and paste comes in handy… on a computer, once you’ve looked at what your paragraphs contain, you can move around information as you wish so it fits into your organizational structure.
  5. A tutor can help you decide if info is relevant, concise, or redundant.
  6. Success! Your paper has been reverse outlined, and is now organized properly, and your brain can be happy about the work you just did to keep yourself on track.



[1] See our “What’s the difference between a topic sentence and a thesis statement?” handout for more information on this. Available in The Writing Survival Guide and/or MSU Denver’s Writing Center(s)!       [COMING SOON]

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