Outline Formatting: Timely Tips for Success

Hunter Hampton ‘19
Guest Columnist

Creating an outline is no simple task. There’s an unbelievable amount of material, a limited amount of time, and the very real risk that you’ll develop carpal tunnel before you’ve ever set finger to key in your actual exam session. Well, I’m here to complicate things further for you, introducing another level of complexity to your already-arduous task. Beyond having good content, it’s vitally important that your outline read smoothly as well. Without this trait, your outline will be an anchor tethering you to a senseless sea of words. Am I making things more difficult for you by asking you to spend some time on formatting? Yes, but only because, in the end, I’m making it easier for you. With that in mind, here are my tips for writing a legible outline.

First, choose a readable font. Readability depends on the purpose to which the font is put. In an outline, the goal is quick, efficient reference. You’re not looking for the most finely sculpted letters, but rather a set of glyphs that are easy to identify at a glance. I recommend fonts with wide spacing between characters. Please don’t use Times New Roman. It’s a newspaper font that is far too dense for quick reference. My personal favorite is Work Sans. It’s very widely spaced, the letters are sharp and easily identifiable, and it comes in nine different weights—not just bold, but extrabold, thin, and black as well. Different weights are handy because you can set off different levels of headings and subheadings without ever changing font or even font size, though I would still recommend the judicious use of the latter option. Work Sans does not come downloaded on most computers, but you can find the whole set of weights on GitHub for free. If you’re not quite as dedicated as I am (read: willing to procrastinate), go with Century Schoolbook or Segoe UI, which should be in most editions of Word. They don’t have nine different weights, but you should be able to make up for that by varying the font size.

Second, never use single-spacing. When you’re looking at your outline during exams, it will probably be nested into one half of your screen so you can type on the other half. This will make everything look smaller, but it will have a particularly deleterious effect on your ability to distinguish one line from another unless you’ve set them apart a little more than you would normally. There’s no need to choose the nuclear option of double-spacing though; 1.2 to 1.5 lines is sufficient. Similarly, if you use paragraphs in your outline, make sure they are set off more than individual lines are. I’d recommend six pts.

Third, use the “bold” option to indicate the theme of a line within the topic of your heading or subheading. For example, if your topic is “Negligence,” you might bold the words “Duty,” “Breach,” “Causation,” and “Damages” in the lines referring to those subtopics. Within each line, use italics to denote standards: “clear and present danger,” “all or substantially all,” “materially alters,” etc. Additionally, you can use bold and italics at the same time for key qualifying phrases like “not,” “if and only if,” and “unless.”

Finally, consistency is the most important thing here. When you always abide by a set of rules (they don’t have to be these), you will train your brain to identify certain relationships quickly and efficiently, which is the whole point of an outline. Don’t allow your outline to slow you down. If you put in the effort now, well-designed formatting will complement your well-thought-out content and help you beat that curve.

The author is pleased to take all your formatting questions.