how to outline anything

How to Outline Anything

A great professor once told me that you’re either a heavy planner or a heavy reviser. Some people can plot out every step of a project and follow through in turn, while others need to get their hands dirty in order to make anything worthwhile. Personally, I think George Burns had it right:

The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men

Gang aft agley,

An’ lea’e us not but grief an’ pain,

For promis’d joy!

This isn’t to say that planning is innately useless; it has its place in project development. Revisers have to approach planning as a guideline and a tool. In that spirit, let me say that preliminary outlining is a rough sketch, not a stone tablet. Here’s how to outline anything.

Start with Brainstorming

The first step to successful outlining is to get your ideas down without worrying about a hierarchy. Brainstorming is made up of equal parts rambling and free association, and the process is similar to cooking spaghetti: throw it at a wall and see what sticks.

If you’ve never brainstormed before, TED editor (TEDitor?) Laura McClure has an excellent article on the subject. Her advice will probably be more useful to those of you working on team-based projects, but there’s plenty of valuable information there for lone wolves, as well.

Eventually, whether it takes an hour or a day, you’ll start to see a logical hierarchy popping out of your brainstorming slushpile. This is when you can start trying to organize the information you have into a logical order, which means you need to…

Decide on a Style

If I had to guess, I’d say that this is what 3/4 of the folks searching for “how to outline” want to know. The truth is that there is no single correct way to plot out your project. When I was working on my undergrad, I took all my notes as tiny outlines under subject headers. My notebooks looked something like this:





-paper money

-market deregulation

-iron production

-125k tons in 1078

-not surpassed until Britain 1790

As you can see, this simple dash-and-indentation style of outlining isn’t the detailed “I, A, 1, i, a” brand we all learned in school. But it is, in general, a style that works for me. If you’re working digitally, the latest version of Word comes with eight preinstalled outlining styles and allows you to create your own if those aren’t to your taste.

Some people may wish to put every detail into their outlines, while others may need very barebones setups to satisfy their goals. No matter what your needs are, it’s imperative that you…

Remember the Rule of Three

An integral part of knowing how to outline is having the ability to judge when to create new sub-levels. To that end, the Rule of Three is an excellent tool to keep in your back pocket. You probably learned it whenever you learned to outline, or to write a five-paragraph essay, but here’s a quick refresher course in case you’ve forgotten.

To structure your outline according to the Rule of Three, begin by placing three major points underneath your title. Next, place three subpoints under each of your major points. Continue in this way–creating sub-subpoints, sub-sub-subpoints, etc.–until your information is sufficiently organized.

Let me say that the Rule of Three, like most rules in the English language, is really more of a guideline. Three is a nice number; it’s robust without being overwhelming. But if you only have two subpoints for a topic, your work may suffer from the addition of a third. Think about it: the time you spend wracking your brain for a third subpoint could be better spent fleshing out your existing ones, and if all you come up with is a thin, two-sentence remark that’s only vaguely connected to your main point, you’ve really wasted your energies. Keep in mind that the quality of your work is more important than its adherence to rules like this one.

A Few Caution Lights Before You Proceed

Those of us who are not naturally planners may feel a strong urge to prematurely abandon learning how to outline when we develop a vague sense of where we’re going. If you work well this way, great! But I encourage you to stick it out and attempt to finish a basic outline before diving into your project headfirst. Having to go back to the drawing board is more painful and time-consuming than the few hours you’ll spend generating a decent plot.

Sometimes your outline may unexpectedly wind up being a part of pre-development. That’s okay! As you learn how to outline, you’ll figure out where it fits in your development process. Remember that you can outline anything, and try not to get discouraged if your outline ends up as a means to a means to an end.

Keeping your outline on-hand as your project progresses can help keep you on track, but don’t be afraid to stray from your original plan if you realize it was too short-sighted. If you felt very strongly about your outline in the beginning, but are now questioning its place within your larger work, get another pair of eyes on it.  You may be able to expand your existing project, but it might serve you better to create two related works instead.

Check out the previous tutorial in this series: How to Write a Complete Sentence.