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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?