Smarthinking Writer's Handbook

Formal and Informal Outlines

Chapter 2: Section 4, Lesson 3

Picture Matthew McConaughey in a tuxedo making a speech at the Oscars. Now picture him in one of his many movie roles—perhaps walking the beach in a romantic comedy. The first setting is very formal, while the second is quite informal. You can think of formal and informal outlines the same way. Formal outlines follow rules and must meet several requirements—much like a movie star dressed in a tux for a special event. Informal outlines are less defined—like an actor strolling shirtless on the beach.

Informal Outlines
The easy-going informal outline is often used to plan an essay. Your instructor might assign one to help you brainstorm, but more often, you’ll put an informal outline together in the course of prewriting. Say you’re writing an essay about the greatest movies ever made. An informal outline can be as simple as this:

Greatest movies
  • Citizen Kane
  • Gone with the Wind
  • Casablanca
  • The Sound of Music

That’s it. No Roman numerals, no fancy spacing, and definitely no Matthew McConaughey. Formal outlines, however, are quite a bit more technical.

Formal Outlines
Many instructors assign formal outlines as preparation for longer or more complex essays. Even if not assigned, a formal outline helps you visualize an essay’s organization and plan your ideas. First, check out this fairly simple blank outline example.

    1. Supporting idea to I
    2. Supporting idea to I
    3. Supporting idea to I

    1. Supporting idea to II
    2. Supporting idea to II
    3. Supporting idea to II

    1. Supporting idea to III
    2. Supporting idea to III
    3. Supporting idea to III

Now, here’s how a formal outline might look for an essay on problems with physician-assisted suicide:

  1. Introduction
    1. History of “Death with Dignity”
    2. Existing laws
    3. Thesis statement

  2. Incorrect life expectancy predictions
    1. Overly pessimistic predictions
    2. New ways to extend life

  3. Missing safeguards
    1. Depression
    2. Lack of witnesses
    3. Falsified records

  4. Potential for abuse
    1. Burden on family
    2. Burden on finances

  5. Dangerous precedent
    1. Cases from Europe
    2. Forced euthanasia

  6. Conclusion

The more complex your topic, the more likely you’ll extend into several layers of supporting ideas. Here’s another outline showing how some subtopics might be expanded in other ways.

Thesis: Marijuana laws need to be reconsidered in light of Colorado’s many issues caused by full legalization.

  1. Introduction
    1. Background of “legalize it” movement
    2. Background of Colorado law
    3. Thesis statement

  2. Marijuana’s effect on children
    1. News story about fourth grader selling marijuana
    2. Hospital reports of children sickened by marijuana
      1. Edible marijuana
      2. Marijuana overdoses

  3. Legal issues with marijuana
    1. Driving violations
      1. Increase in buzzed driving
      2. Increase in border arrests

    2. Public consumption violations

  4. Marijuana-related deaths

  5. Conclusion

As at a formal event, several rules apply when you write a formal outline:

  • All subtopics must come in pairs at minimum. If you have an A, you must have a B. Otherwise, there’s really no need for an A. If you have a 1, you should have a 2, and so on. This ensures that main points are not divided haphazardly.
  • Start new subtopics under the first letter of the main point above. For example, II.B.1 starts under the word Hospital.
  • Your instructor may require that you write formal outlines in complete sentences; other instructors prefer phrases. If you write in complete sentences, use correct end punctuation as well. If writing in phrases, use parallel structure. For example, you might use noun phrases or –ing phrases. Don’t switch back and forth.
Think About It
  • How will you use this outline?
  • What order makes most sense for your sub topics?
  • What level of detail will be most helpful for the next step in the writing process?

Even if you do remember them from grade school, outlines aren’t old fashioned or elementary. Outlines help you distill and organize your ideas, and creating an outline makes writing the first draft much easier!