English 102

Paragraph-by-Paragraph Outline

Paper Checkpoint 1

Write a paragraph-by-paragraph outline of the assigned article.

Writing a Paragraph-by-Paragraph Outline

See below for a link to an example.

  1. Read the article or chapter through once.
  2. Read the article again. This time, identify the thesis (the main point the author wants to make or prove). Write the thesis in your own words.
  3. Go back over it, this time focusing on the main ideas rather than the details. Write a word or phrase identifying the main idea of each paragraph. Make a list of these words and phrases.
  4. Now that you’ve listed the main idea in each paragraph, it’s time to look at the bigger picture. Go over the article again, this time with your list of main ideas next to it. At each point where the author shifts to a new idea, point or topic, draw a line on your outline to mark that change.
  5. Write a word or phrase to sum up each group of paragraphs that you have marked off. The paragraphs in each group should all go together, all dealing with one main idea.
  6. You should now have a list of main ideas that cover the entire article or chapter. Write these in a list by themselves. Write a brief phrase to explain how each one relates to the thesis. For example, “Explains why this is a problem” or “Shows people want to learn.”

This is the method we will use to read and summarize all the assigned reading. It may seem laborious at first but it will dramatically improve your comprehension. Over time, if you practice this method, it will teach you some excellent reading habits that will become second nature, so you don’t have to write everything out this way.

There are four specific things that this method does to improve your comprehension and retention:

  1. It helps you pay closer attention. If you have to sum up the main idea of each paragraph, you have to read it closely to be sure you’ve gotten the idea. Writing it down then fixes it in your mind much more strongly than if you just read it.
  2. It helps you read actively. When you “translate” the main idea into your own words, you make choices—you separate the main idea from the supporting details, and you choose your own words to express that idea. This gets you more involved in reading, which helps you understand and remember.
  3. It helps you focus on main ideas. Instead of getting bogged down in the details, you focus your attention on the key points, which are shorter, fewer and easier to remember.
  4. It helps you see relationships among ideas. This type of relationship is called a hierarchy, or ranked series. This means there’s one overall idea, or thesis, that includes everything in the article or chapter. Beneath that there are main points that all relate to the thesis. These main points are expressed in the paragraph groups that you identified. They in turn include the ideas in the individual paragraphs, and each individual paragraph relates to the main idea of its group. At the next level down, every sentence in a single paragraph relates to the main idea of that paragraph.
The concept of hierarchy is perhaps the single most important concept for you to take away from this method of reading. Almost all writing can be analyzed hierarchically, and understanding the hierarchy of ideas is key to truly understanding what you read. Without a grasp of the hierarchy, or relationship, your reading will seem pretty random, making it much more difficult or impossible to understand and remember.

Once you’ve made your paragraph-by-paragraph outline and grouped the ideas within it, you will have an outline of your reading. If you need to write a summary, all you will have to do is write out in complete sentences the ideas you’ve already identified. This should give you a complete, accurate, objective and concise summary.


Click here for an example of a paragraph outline based on this article.