Short & Sweet: The Topic Outline

28 Sep

Now that we’ve discussed at length various prewriting strategies, let’s tackle the most formal of them all — the outline.

Since outlines are on the minds of IB folks (reminder: the outline is due Monday, October 15th), I’m going to tailor these posts to them; though, of course, the instructions are the same regardless of the content.

There are two basic types of outlines and today we’re going to go over the more basic of the two…

– Topic Outline

Most of you are probably familiar with outlines in general as well as topic outlines but let’s explain to be sure. (If you’re unsure of the format of an outline, check out this great link).

A topic outline is going to consist of key phrases/words for each heading as well as each sub-heading. Here’s a sample based on the Song of Solomon example I used for the brainstorming post a few days back (please ignore the erroneous margins – that’s WordPress, not me).

Thesis: The motif of flight in Song of Solomon represents a conflicted duality of abandonment and freedom.

I. Introduction

A. Flight motif in the novel

1. Flight as in abandonment

2. Flight as in freedom

B. Character analysis

1. Robert Smith

2. Milkman

3. Solomon

And so on and so forth until you’ve mapped out your entire paper in short phrases or even single words. The great thing about the topic outline is that it can really help you organize your thoughts in an easy and uncluttered way.

Now let’s say you’re, oh I don’t know, working on the Extended Essay and find that you’re drowning in information and are feeling stumped as to how to even separate all the different ideas you’ve read, never mind organizing them. No problem! A topic outline can easily help you here since, again, you’re dealing with basic ideas rather than fully fleshed out sentences.

Step 1. Write your research question at the top of your outline page. Woohoo, see I told you this was easy!

Step 2. Grab a separate piece of paper but keep your outline where you can see it. On this new piece of paper, go back to your pouch of prewriting strategies and choose the method that you like the best.

Write down the first 10-15 things that come to mind when you think about your research question. Keep glancing at your question to get inspired. Don’t worry if these ideas are going to make it to the outline or even your final essay. What we want to do at this stage is to get the ideas flowing. You’ve all read enough at this point in the game that this should be a pretty simple task.

Step 3. Once done, look for connections and then connect them with a line, dash, asterisks, whatever makes sense to you.

Step 4. Now that you’ve got your initial ideas narrowed down a bit, look at each grouping and ask yourself: How does this help answer my research question? If it doesn’t, write a b? next to it – it could be helpful for background material so you don’t want to discard it just yet. If it does help answer your research question, write a y next to it, as in yes this absolutely needs to be in your essay somewhere. 

Step 5. Take all of your statements and start looking for connections, patterns, etc. If it helps, re-write each one on an index card so you can move them around into different configurations.

Step 6. Write your outline. Once you’ve organized your y cards into place, all you should need to do at this point is type up your outline. Ta-da!

If you’d like help with your outline, come on in to the Writing Center! We’re here Mon-Fri 2:30-4:30pm. Sign up for an appointment in the Library (see the main counter) or email


2 Responses to “Short & Sweet: The Topic Outline”


  1. Getting Organized « LHS Writing Center - October 9, 2012

    […] – The Topic Outline […]

  2. Anything Goes Wednesday: Plotting the Plot | LHS Writing Center - May 22, 2013

    […] your thoughts for any writing that you do? Are you a fan of the mind map? Looping? Or maybe outlining? Perhaps you do something totally different – share it with […]

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