How to write an essay outline

An essay outline is a way of planning the structure of your essay before you start writing. It involves writing quick summary sentences or phrases for every point you will cover in each paragraph, giving you a picture of how your argument will unfold.

You’ll sometimes be asked to submit an essay outline as a separate assignment before you start writing an essay—but even if you don’t have to hand one in, it’s a good idea to create an outline as part of your writing process.

Organizing your material

At the stage where you’re writing an essay outline, your ideas are probably still not fully formed. You should know your topic and have already done some preliminary research to find relevant sources, but now you need to shape your ideas into a structured argument.

Creating categories

Look over any information, quotes and ideas you’ve noted down from your research and consider the central point you want to make in the essay—this will be the basis of your thesis statement. Once you have an idea of your overall argument, you can begin to organize your material in a way that serves that argument.

Try to arrange your material into categories related to different aspects of your argument. If you’re writing about a literary text, you might group your ideas into themes; in a history essay, it might be several key trends or turning points from the period you’re discussing.

Three main themes or subjects is a common structure for essays. Depending on the length of the essay, you could split the themes into three body paragraphs, or three longer sections with several paragraphs covering each theme.

As you create the outline, look critically at your categories and points: Are any of them irrelevant or redundant? Make sure every topic you cover is clearly related to your thesis statement.

Order of information

When you have your material organized into several categories, consider what order they should appear in.

Your essay will always begin and end with an introduction and conclusion, but the organization of the body is up to you.

Consider these questions to order your material:

  • Is there an obvious starting point for your argument?
  • Is there one subject that provides an easy transition into another?
  • Do some points need to be set up by discussing other points first?

Presentation of the outline

Within each paragraph, you’ll discuss a single idea related to your overall topic or argument, using several points of evidence or analysis to do so.

In your outline, you present these points as a few short numbered sentences or phrases.They can be split into sub-points when more detail is needed.

The template below shows how you might structure an outline for a five-paragraph essay.

Essay outline template
  1. Introduction
    1. Hook
    2. Background
    3. Thesis statement
  2. Topic one
    1. First point
      1. First piece of evidence
      2. Second piece of evidence
    2. Second point
      1. First piece of evidence
      2. Second piece of evidence
  3. Topic two
    1. First point
      1. First piece of evidence
      2. Second piece of evidence
    2. Second point
      1. First piece of evidence
      2. Second piece of evidence
  4. Topic three
    1. First point
      1. First piece of evidence
      2. Second piece of evidence
    2. Second point
      1. First piece of evidence
      2. Second piece of evidence
  5. Conclusion
    1. Summary/synthesis
    2. Importance of topic
    3. Strong closing statement

You can choose whether to write your outline in full sentences or short phrases. Be consistent in your choice; don’t randomly write some points as full sentences and others as short phrases.

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Examples of essay outlines

Examples of outlines for different types of essays are presented below: an argumentative, expository, and literary analysis essay.

Argumentative essay outline

This outline is for a short argumentative essay evaluating the internet’s impact on education. It uses short phrases to summarize each point.

Its body is split into three paragraphs, each presenting arguments about a different aspect of the internet’s effects on education.

Argumentative essay outline
  1. Introduction
    1. Importance of the internet
    2. Concerns about internet use
    3. Thesis statement: Internet use a net positive
  2. The internet’s harmful effects on attention
    1. Smartphone as classroom distraction
      1. Data exploring this effect
      2. Analysis indicating it is overstated
    2. Impatience with reading
      1. Students’ reading levels over time
      2. Why this data is questionable
  3. Flexibility the internet allows for
    1. Variety of media to engage different learners
      1. Video media
      2. Interactive media
    2. Accessible means of independent research
      1. Speed and simplicity of online research
      2. Questions about reliability (transitioning into next topic)
  4. Students’ use of Wikipedia
    1. Negatives of Wikipedia
      1. Evidence indicating its ubiquity
      2. Claims that it discourages engagement with academic writing
    2. Positives of Wikipedia
      1. Evidence that Wikipedia warns students not to cite it
      2. Argument that it introduces students to citation
  5. Conclusion
    1. Summary of key points
    2. Value of digital education for students
    3. Need for optimism to embrace advantages of the internet

Expository essay outline

This is the outline for an expository essay describing how the invention of the printing press affected life and politics in Europe.

The paragraphs are still summarized in short phrases here, but individual points are described with full sentences.

Expository essay outline
  1. Introduction
    1. Claim that the printing press marks the end of the Middle Ages.
    2. Provide background on the low levels of literacy before the printing press.
    3. Present the thesis statement: The invention of the printing press increased circulation of information in Europe, paving the way for the Reformation.
  2. Situation before the printing press
    1. Discuss the very high levels of illiteracy in medieval Europe.
    2. Describe how literacy and thus knowledge and education were mainly the domain of religious and political elites.
    3. Indicate how this discouraged political and religious change.
  3. Invention and spread of the printing press
    1. Describe the invention of the printing press in 1440 by Johannes Gutenberg.
    2. Show the implications of the new technology for book production.
    3. Describe the rapid spread of the technology and the printing of the Gutenberg Bible.
    4. Link to the Reformation.
  4. Printing press’s influence on the Reformation
    1. Discuss the trend for translating the Bible into vernacular languages during the years following the printing press’s invention.
    2. Describe Luther’s own translation of the Bible during the Reformation.
    3. Sketch out the large-scale effects the Reformation would have on religion and politics.
  5. Conclusion
    1. Summarize the history described.
    2. Stress the significance of the printing press to the events of this period.

Literary analysis essay outline

The literary analysis essay outlined below discusses the role of theater in Jane Austen’s novel Mansfield Park.

The body of the essay is divided into three different themes, each of which is explored through examples from the book.

Literary analysis essay outline
  1. Introduction
    1. Describe the theatricality of Austen’s works
    2. Outline the role theater plays in Mansfield Park
    3. Introduce the research question: How does Austen use theater to express the characters’ morality in Mansfield Park?
  2. The frivolous acting scheme
    1. Discuss Austen’s depiction of the performance at the end of the first volume
    2. Discuss how Sir Bertram reacts to the acting scheme
  3. Stage directions
    1. Introduce Austen’s use of stage direction–like details during dialogue
    2. Explore how these are deployed to show the characters’ self-absorption
  4. The performance of morals
    1. Discuss Austen’s description of Maria and Julia’s relationship as polite but affectionless
    2. Compare Mrs. Norris’s self-conceit as charitable despite her idleness
  5. Conclusion
    1. Summarize the three themes: The acting scheme, stage directions, and the performance of morals
    2. Answer the research question
    3. Indicate areas for further study

Frequently asked questions about essay outlines

When do I need to write an essay outline?

You will sometimes be asked to hand in an essay outline before you start writing your essay. Your supervisor wants to see that you have a clear idea of your structure so that writing will go smoothly.

Even when you do not have to hand it in, writing an essay outline is an important part of the writing process. It’s a good idea to write one (as informally as you like) to clarify your structure for yourself whenever you are working on an essay.

Should I use full sentences in my essay outline?

If you have to hand in your essay outline, you may be given specific guidelines stating whether you have to use full sentences. If you’re not sure, ask your supervisor.

When writing an essay outline for yourself, the choice is yours. Some students find it helpful to write out their ideas in full sentences, while others prefer to summarize them in short phrases.

Do I have to stick to my essay outline as I write?

You should try to follow your outline as you write your essay. However, if your ideas change or it becomes clear that your structure could be better, it’s okay to depart from your essay outline. Just make sure you know why you’re doing so.

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Jack Caulfield

Jack is a Brit based in Amsterdam, with an MA in comparative literature. He writes and edits for Scribbr, and reads a lot of books in his spare time.

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