An outline is a blueprint or set of plans for a written document. It should be constructed after you have decided upon the organizational method with which you are going to present your research material. Its purpose is to show you where everything is going to go in your finished document.
The complexity of your outline will depend upon the extent, or scope, of your writing task. Letters and memos require only a simple list such as that found in Sample 1. Summaries and reports, on the other hand, may require more complete sets of instruction such as those found in Sample 2 and Sample 3. The difference between them is in their levels of formality. Sample 2 falls midway between a low level and a high level of formality and might be used for a summary report.
Regardless of its complexity, an outline describes the decisions you have already thought out and places the content you intend to include in your document in a sequential order. A well-built one serves as a guideline when developing your rough draft, and a point of reference when reviewing and revising your writing. It will help keep you on track.
Sample 1: Simple List
A simple list is an informal ordering of the main points a writer intends to include in a written document. Like a grocery list, its purpose is largely as a reminder and can be made of words, phrases or complete sentences.
In the sample below Ms. Ida Mae Knott, the purchasing agent for Better Widget Makers, Inc., has outlined the main points she intends to include in an inquiry letter to the Vice-President of Sales and Marketing at the Golden Bread Company. She has made a simple list of phrases and notes to help guide her letter-writing task.
Ms. Ida Mae Knott's Inquiry Letter Outline
1) Contact Person - Mr. Russ Hamilton - VP Sales & Marketing - Get address.
2) New cafeteria almost complete - Need food vendors
3) Bakery goods to be outsourced - Need wholesale contract soon
4) Dangle carrot - buying locally is company policy
5) Building pro forma - Supply internal logistics - Ask for help
6) List of info needed - Price sheets - Cost breaks - Annual discounts - Other
7) Mention deadline
Not all lists are as simple as Ms. Ida Mae's. An outline for a short summary of an annual stockholder's report might include whole paragraphs, as in Sample 2, with more details regarding which important points from each section of the report should be included in the summary.
Sample 2: Intermediate Outline
Sample 3: Complex Outline
A complex outline has headings and subheadings for each topic. Main topics become main headings. Key points become subheadings, and lesser subordinate points. In this way a complex subject can be divided into its parts and the whole project seen and thought about more clearly.
These divisions are quite often sentence fragments. Take each one and turn them into complete sentences. Main headings can be turned into topic sentences and subheadings can be turned into supporting sentences. The details form your research notes will fill in the body of your text.