Family History: How to use the outline to write your story

Family History: How to use the outline to write your storyBy Barry J. Ewell

Remember, the outline is a blueprint. Just as blueprints help a builder create a structure, your outline can form the foundation or frame for the first draft.

Writing experience by experience, topic by topic: If your out¬line is on a computer, you can just click your cursor at any part of the outline you have created and fill in the details. This can help you overcome writer’s block. That is, you can write the third section first, if you want. Then simply go back and fill in sections one and two. When you revise, you can make sure all the pieces fit together.

Modifying the design. Outlines are not set in stone. As you write, you may discover that you’ve left out essential information. If you keep a printed copy of your outline handy, you can figure out where in your outline the new information belongs and insert it (don’t be formal about it—just pencil it in). That way, you can see how the addition alters the rest of the story.

Starting again. Sometimes your original outline simply needs to be restructured. If you are careful, this is not a problem and you can rework the original outline. When you create the new outline (even if it’s simply a sketch), focus on your purpose and who you are writing to.

Using the outline to crosscheck the final draft. Finally, if you update your outline as you work, rather than abandon it after it has been created, you’ll have a handy reference to double-check the organization of the final story. For a larger story, the outline can also provide your section headings and subheadings and can become the table of contents.

Structure of a Personal History Outline
Like any good story, a personal history has three sections: introduction, body, and conclusion. The outline is designed to indicate levels of significance using major and minor headings. You will organize your information from general to specific. For example, the general headings could be as follows:

  • Childhood (0-11)
  • Adolescence (11-18)
  • Early Adulthood (18-25)
  • Prime Adulthood (25-45)
  • Middle Adult Years (45-65)
  • Senior Adulthood (65-present)

And subordinate headings or topics could include:

  • Memories of your children
  • Community Service
  • Health Record
  • Physical Characteristics
  • Social Life
  • Religion
  • Memorable World Events
  • Military Service
  • Education
  • Vocation
  • Counsel to Posterity

As you create your subheadings, make sure there is a clear relationship between the subheadings and their supporting elements. Consider the following example:

Mary Jones Attends High School

  • High School Attendance
  • High School Activities
    • Drill Team
    • Sr. Prom
  • Mary Jones Summer Work
    • Picking fruit (Cherries, Peaches)
    • Working at the Spanish Fork Cannery

The most important rule for outlining is to be consistent! An outline can use topic or sentence structure, which are explained below.

Sentence Structure. A sentence outline uses complete sentences for all entries and uses correct punctuation.

Advantages: presents a more detailed overview of work, including possible topic sentences, and is easier and faster for transitioning to writing the final paper.

Topic Outline. A topic outline uses words or phrases for all entries and uses no punctuation after entries.

Advantages: Presents a brief overview of work and is generally easier and faster to write than a sentence outline. There are two simple formats that seem to work well with creating a personal history outline—roman numeral and decimal. They are explained below:

Roman numeral

  1. Major Topic
    1. Main Idea
    2. Main Idea
      1. Detail of support
      2. Detail of support
    3. Broken down further
      1. More details
      2. More details


  • 1.0
    • 1.1
    • 1.2
      • 1.2.1
      • 1.2.2

Regardless of simplicity or complexity, an outline is a pre-writing tool to help you organize your thoughts and create a roadmap for writing your personal history.

Remember, the outline is for you. It exists to help orient you within the personal history and to help ensure a full answer. You can deviate from it if you wish, and as you write, you may find you have more and more ideas. Stop and take the time to brainstorm and write them down, then reassess and adjust your plan.