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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