The formal outline is an optional part of the Modern Language Association, or MLA, style paper. Some instructors require one and some do not. Even if your instructor does not ask for an outline, creating one can help you organize your thoughts before writing any kind of paper. It may be particularly useful between the research and rough draft stage for a research paper.
Your outline should include your thesis statement, the single sentence that explains the overall point of your paper. According to the 7th edition of the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, developing a working thesis helps you create an outline, since it gives your essay focus. The thesis reflects your purpose, such as arguing a particular idea, comparing and contrasting or defining a concept. Place your thesis at the top of your outline. Type the word THESIS, in all capital letters, followed by a colon and then the thesis statement.
Your MLA outline should include only ideas that support your thesis statement. Setting these concepts out in a list and putting them in groups that logically fit together establishes the basic ideas your outline will include. Delete concepts that do not clearly fit the point of your thesis and unnecessary repetition. The order of ideas should also fit the purpose set out in your thesis. For instance, you may use chronological order or you might discuss causes first and then effects.
You can create either a topic outline or sentence outline in MLA style. A topic outline uses single words or short phrases for each entry, while a sentence outline uses complete sentences. A topic outline is shorter and may be faster to write at first, but a sentence outline allows you to use exact sentences from your draft so may speed up your writing process in the long run. Check your guidelines to see if your instructor requires a specific type.
The numbers and letters in your MLA outline explain how the ideas relate to each other. The main ideas are represented by capital Roman numerals (I, II) followed by a period, such as "I. Causes" and "II. Effects." Capital letters (A, B) represent the next level under each Roman numeral. The next level of ideas uses Arabic numerals (1, 2), then lowercase letters (a, b) and then numbers inside parentheses. The sections of your outline should remain parallel when possible. If you use an A beneath I, then you must have a B. If you have A, B and C under I, try to create an A, B and C under II. For a final formal outline turned in with your paper, the header should contain small Roman numerals in the header along with your name (Smith i).