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Making an Outline for Your School Essay in APA, MLA or Chicago


Students Making an Outline for a School Essay

One way teachers help students learn to write research papers and essays is by teaching them to write an outline of the paper before they start writing it. Some teachers require an outline submitted prior to approving the topic. It helps both the students and teachers find out if you’re on the right track before going further in your research process.

Although your teacher will tell you what editorial style to use for your essay, such as APA, MLA or Chicago, there are no formatting rules in these styles to create an outline. The outline is not part of the finished product so there is no need to have a certain style for it.

Your teacher may explain how s/he wants it formatted. In that case, follow those instructions.

Even if your teacher doesn’t require an outline, it’s a good idea to create one for yourself.

Organizing Principles

Use one of these organizing principles when you create your outline:

Method:Pairs well with:
ChronologicalHistorical discussions
Cause & EffectHow something that happened created an effect for the next event
ProcessWhat was/were the process/steps?
Deductive LogicMoves from the general to the specific
Inductive LogicMoves from the specific to the general

Formatting an Outline

Even though you don’t have to format your outline in a particular editorial style for publication, there are still basic rules to follow. First of all, there are two types of outlines you can create:

  • Topic Outline
  • Sentence Outline

The outline is for you to organize your thoughts on the research and writing process. Writing a paper or essay is a step by step procedure and the outline keeps you on track. Unless you have a specific assignment, create it so that it works for you. If you feel you can stay on track using short phrases, use the topic outline but if you think you’ll need longer sentences, use the sentence outline.

Creating the Outline

The basic format of an outline is using Roman numerals for the main points, then using capital letters, numbers, lower-case letters and so forth for subtopics


I. Introduction

A. Thesis

1. argument

a. proven

B. Purpose Statement

II. Literature Review

A. Existing research

The subtopics lay out the specifics of the larger topics. Create the outline in the same manner as you will your research paper. For example, Section I. will cover your introduction, including your thesis and/or statement of purpose. The final section is your conclusion.

Note: Most software programs, including Word and Google Docs will create the outline for you.


Even though the outline of the paper isn’t published as part of the research paper, it’s an excellent way to develop your essay or research paper. Follow your teacher’s instructions and then use this helpful tool to get you through the research and writing process.

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About the author

Adrienne Mathewson

Adrienne Mathewson, Editor-in-Chief of Bibliography.com, is an Information Professional with a Master’s in Library, Information & Science from San José State University with an emphasis on information literacy and scholarly publishing. She is a certified librarian through the State of New Mexico.

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