Effective Technical Writing in the Information Age



Most students see outlines as a royal pain. But not only are they often central to writing-intensive courses, they are frequently required on the job; for example, a project manager may require each individual team member to outline and compose different portions of a joint report. Do not be seduced by the belief that an outline is totally useless or simply mechanical; this will only be true if you make it so.


Plenty of tips on writing outlines are available on the web on university webpages. Here are two recommended sites:

"Types of Outlines and Samples" article from Purdue's Online Writing Lab (OWL)

"Using Outlines" article from Indiana University, Bloomington

The Value of Outlining

Outlines foster coherence by helping the writer to:

  • plan both the sequence and hierarchy of information.
  • make decisions about organization and content without the distraction of all the details of composition.
  • avoid repetition, digression, poor emphasis, and poor flow.
  • improve general organizational skills.

Considered in the light of the above ideal, outlines can be as fundamental to the writer as a flowchart is to the computer programmer. Good writers use outlines to flesh out their ideas, organize their thoughts, and discover their gaps.

Outlines can be writer-centered, of course, to aid you in expressing your ideas, but the material presented here assumes a reader-centered outline—i.e., one written for the eyes of a professor who will use the outline to provide you with some written feedback. As long as the mechanics of the outline are correct and the details concrete, most professors will not be too finicky about the quality of your outlining skills, and will simply take the opportunity to give you quick feedback on your ideas and organization.

Style for Outlines

When drafting an outline, keep the following stylistic tips in mind:

  • Compose a thorough working title for your paper, with the title offering a window into the paper’s purpose and content.
  • Double-space your type to allow room for comments.
  • Present headings as scientific categories and assertions rather than as informal speculations (i.e., "How Manganese Oxides Trap Heavy Metals" rather than "Just How Do Manganese Oxides Trap Heavy Metals?").
  • Avoid presenting section headings as questions unless the questions themselves are especially compelling.
  • Be certain that headings work in relation to one another.
  • Avoid the use of acronyms in headings—write the material out.

When writing an outline for a class, even if you are unsure of what material to provide under each heading, include a draft of each major heading to demonstrate your overall plan and to encourage professor feedback.

Mechanics of Outlining

The mechanics of outlining are simple when stripped down to their essential elements. The two most common forms used are the Arabic System and the Decimal System. Indentations of a tab (1/2-inch or five spaces) are used to designate hierarchy of material, and order is indicated by sequential numbers, letters, or Roman numerals. Headings at the left margin are typically referred to as first-level headings, those indented one tab as second-level headings, and so on. The Decimal System requires a period between numbers, and note that, for both systems, the rising sequence of the numbers, letters, or Roman numerals is determined by the level of the heading under which a character falls.

Click here to download a pdf of a simple depiction of two outline systems, without the outline text.

Click here to view a simple depiction of two outline systems within this page, without the outline text.

A Simple Depiction of Two Outline Systems

1.0 __________

         1.1 __________

         1.2 __________

2.0 _________

         2.1 __________

                 2.1.1 __________

                 2.1.2 __________



         2.2 __________


I. __________

         A. __________

         B. __________

II. __________

         A. __________

                 1. __________

                 2. __________

                         a. __________

                         b. __________

         B. __________