Creating and using outlines

Outlines are a necessary part of writing. Period. Outlines are like a roadmap. They give you direction; they tell you where to go. Working without an outline is like trying to get from Oregon to New York and only knowing you need to go east. In technical writing, outlines can serve multiple purposes. One is help the writer organize ideas and evidence, and the other to communicate your plan of development clearly to the person who has the authority to move your project forward. Therefore, the various parts of your outline should make sense to you and communicate your ideas clearly to your audience. As you begin to outline your report: Indicate main idea/thesis at top.
Name and number the major sections of the
report at the left margin. Add details for each section underneath the major section. Write in complete sentences when presenting details.Indent the details related to each section underneath the names of major sections.
Alternate between numbers and letters to indicate different levels: I. A. 1. a. 1) a)
Take a peek at the following three-minute video which explains how helpful outlines can be in writing a technical report:

Start screen for outlines screencast

Other suggestions about creating an outline from your research:

  • Develop as specific an outline as you can: it shows you what information you must gather and, as importantly, what information you can ignore.
  • Use the indexes, tables of contents, and headings within chapters of books or articles from databases selectively for just the information you need.
  • Divide your work into manageable, hour-long chunks (make progress rather than relying on big blocks of weekend or vacation time).

Before you begin your detailed, formal outline, you might wish to consider the following:

  1. Do any preliminary reading necessary to construct a rough outline.
  2. Develop a rough outline with major section headings you are considering for this report.
  3. Identify your information sources, and make a bibliographic citation for each.
  4. Take notes as your read determining in which sections each source material might best work.
  5. Provide in-text citations as you develop your outline; doing so will help document sources thoroughly and ethically at all stages (and will make your job easier when you are drafting your report).
  6. Change or add extra detail to the outline as the research process continues.

When you have completed sufficient research to develop your ideas, a formal outline can be used to develop a draft of your report. As you write and revise, you will continue filling in details, adding transitions, and providing your own acquired understanding of the subject. It isn’t uncommon to discover gaps in your early draft and have to go back and conduct more research. Keep in mind that this is a working outline and not a contract; as you continue your research, you may decide to organize the final report differently and even delete some information and add new sections.

Developing the rough outline

In the early stages of developing a formal, detailed outline, create a working outline before you begin gathering information. The rough outline shows you which specific topics to gather information on and which ones to ignore. Think of the outline as a series of questions:

Rough outline for a report on light water nuclear reactors Questions generated by the outline
  1. Pressurized Water Reactors
    1. Major Components
    2. Basic Operations
What are the main differences? What are the main components? What are the materials? Design? Dimensions? How many are in operation? Where Who designed them?
  1.  Boiling Water Reactors
    1. Major Components
    2. Basic Operation
How do they differ from PWRs? What are the main components? What are the materials? Design? Dimensions? Designers? Where used? How many?
  1.  Safety Measures
    1. Pressurized Water Reactors
    2. Boiling Water Reactors
    3. Role of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission
What are the chief dangers? What are the dangers and safety measures associated with PWRs? What are the dangers and safety measures associated with BWRs? How does the NRC regulate nuclear power plants? What standards does it enforce? How?
  1.  Economic Aspects of Light Water Reactors
    1. Construction Costs
    2. Operation and Maintenance Costs
    3. Operating Capacity
What are the construction, operation, maintenance, and fuel costs? What about the availability of fuel? How do these costs compare to output? How do the PWR and the BWR compare in terms of costs and output? How much electricity can a LWR generate at full capacity?

Figure 1. Viewing an outline as a series of questions

Keep in mind that this rough outline is in its early stage. The formal outline you will ultimately create and submit will be much more developed, containing specific details and information from your anticipated sections of your report.

Chapter Attribution Information

This chapter was derived from the following sources.

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Outlines Copyright © 2015 by Annemarie Hamlin, Chris Rubio, Michele DeSilva is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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