Four Types of Outlining - article

Before we explore outlining methods, let's get something out of the way: not all writers use outlines and that's perfectly fine. Winging it, or "pantsing," is a valid writing method, especially for fiction writers. However, many writers benefit from a well-laid plot blueprint as it helps them avoid getting stuck with no way out. It also helps authors who continuously start projects but can never figure out how to reach the end. Now that that's out of the way, let's take a look at four popular outlining forms:

Classical Outlining

A classical outline includes Roman numerals, letters, and numbers for headings and subheadings. This is a highly organized form of outlining and relies heavily on sequential thinking, making it a popular choice among nonfiction writers. The goal of the classical outline is to create a blueprint that effectively divides main ideas and subordinating ones, while at the same time coordinating ideas into a cohesive whole. This pre-writing organization brings clarity to the work.

Summary Outlining

In a summary outline, the writer estimates the number of chapters in their manuscript. The writer often starts out with a document similar to a beat sheet used by screenwriters (a sequentially ordered list of plot events). Then a short summary of each chapter is written. A clear goal is defined for each chapter, and the characters are discussed, along with settings and chapter timelines. This kind of outline is very linear in nature.

Index Card Outlining

Index card outlining is very popular because it allows for the constant reorganization of ideas. Writers create short scene synopses and can rearrange them at will. This is great for those who have a non-linear style. Many use Post-it notes instead of note cards because they can be easily arranged on a wall board, offering a more visual way to follow the story’s plot. For the technically inclined, a program like Microsoft’s “Power Point” or Mac’s “Keynote” allow you to create cards online and easily rearrange as needed. Other programs like Scrivener and Celtx are made for writers and have even more user-friendly outlining features.


Clustering, or mind mapping, is a random and organic outline form and consists of creating a web of ideas that will eventually be used to start a story. The main idea is placed in a central bubble then more bubbles surround it. More ideas radiate out from the center, creating a web-like shape upon completion. Lines connect all the bubbles with coordinating ideas. For large works, a poster-sized sheet of paper is recommended.

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  • I hope to get into screenwriting so I've instinctively done a summary outline. Nlice. Didn't know that was a thing. I like what I'm learning lol 

  • I like the index card idea and using power point. This will give me a better visual sense if my scenes are in the right place.

  • I put in all of my chapters with outlines in the order that I thought they would go even though I was using a story that involved a historical researcher telling his story as he was living his life.  My researcher's character is linear, while the research is not.  The story follows his discoveries as historical fiction until his story merges with the research.  I chose outline, but I must admit, I am intrigued by the comments about using power point and may look into that in the future.  Great article.  I will keep this or any updates from it handy.

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    Im trying to write my first book and the index card one stuck out to me!!! Thanks for the idea

  • Those are great choices and the one I use it the bubble. As a teacher in second grade that is what I taught my students when we had writing workshop each day.