Organizing information into an outline

After gathering information, writing a thesis, and selecting appropriate details, the next step in planning a composition is to arrange the information. One way to do so is by writing an informal outline. An informal outline shows the arrangement of major ideas and supporting details.

Suppose your grandmother has told you many stories about her childhood on an Illinois farm, and you decide to write a composition on that topic. Through brainstorming and talking with your grandmother, you develop a list of information from which you write the thesis, “During her childhood on a farm, my grandmother’s life was busy and productive.” You then select the following details:

Went to square dances in church hall once a month

Had eight brothers and sisters

Helped to milk the cows and lead them to pasture in the morning

During the summer she had to hoe thistles, and she hated that.

Listened to radio programs

Went on hayrides in the fall

She taught some lessons to the first-grade students and listened to their reading.

Liked to go on sleigh rides in the winter

The chickens were her responsibility

Fed chickens

Gathered eggs

Helped mother bake twelve loaves of bread every Saturday morning

In summer she drove the tractor that pulled the hayrack

No cafeteria at school Grandmother’s Farm Life

Grandmother’s farm work Caring for the chickens Milking the cows Hoeing thistles Driving tractor Baking bread

Grandmother’s school Walking to school Studying Teaching younger students

Grandmother’s recreation Radio Books

Square dances Hayrides and sleigh rides

Notice that some details from the list of information (such as Had eight brothers and sisters) are omitted from the preceding topic outline. Since the writer’s goal is not only to present interesting information but also to organize information clearly for readers, details are sometimes not included because they are unrelated to the major ideas.

This sample outline is called a topic outline because it has short topics rather than complete sentences.

Brought lunch from home

School had only books—no films or records

Loved to read and traded books with her friends

The first step in organizing an outline is to identify the major ideas. As you examine the details about your grandmother’s farm life, you notice that some details are about summer, while others are about fall or winter. You think you might organize your information under three major ideas: farm life during the summer, the fall, and the winter. However, a second look at your list of information shows that some details are not related to a season of the year and that only one detail is about the farm in winter. You notice that some details are about your grandmother’s farm chores, some are about her school, and some are about what she did in her free time. Finally, you decide you can best arrange your information about your grandmother’s busy and productive childhood under three major ideas:

•  Grandmother’s farm work

•  Grandmother’s school

•  Grandmother’s recreation

The next step is to add details that support the major ideas. In an informal outline, details are indented under the major ideas, as the following outline for the topic Grandmother’s Farm Life shows.


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