The writing process: Outlining the essay

The purpose of an outline is to guide you when you begin to write your first draft, to remind yourself how what you’re writing relates to the rest of the paper. Another important thing to remember about an outline is that it needs to be just clear enough for you to understand it—and it’s not necessary that anyone else should understand it. The outline is for the writer, and the writer alone.

In crafting an outline for your essay, you need to state an argument about the issue that you’ve decided to centre the essay on. In other words, try to form a rough thesis statement for the paper. Do not look upon this version of your thesis statement as the final version. This version of your thesis statement is only the first iteration of your working thesis statement; the final, polished version comes much later.

Once you’ve got this working thesis statement to build your paper around, you can start to plan sections and paragraphs to support the thesis statement. Try to imagine what you need to explain to make that statement convincing. Start by considering the reasons that you believe the statement is right. Then consider what doubts your reader might have, what reasons you can give ease these doubts, and what things you will need to explain to convince that reader. These reasons and explanations will be the focus of your sections and paragraphs, and in your outline you can try to write them out as point-form topic sentences.

Finally, think about the research you’ve done already, and try to note good evidence and sources for each section or paragraph. Make sure to note the source of any evidence and where you can find that source so that when you begin to write the essay, you don’t have to waste time searching.

You should now have an outline for your essay that gives you a sense of how all of the parts of your paper work together. The layout of the introduction and conclusion are unimportant to your outline, so they are not necessary, but you can make notes on them if you like.

Example essay outline

You have plenty of options for how your arrange your outline visually. Some writers do well with flow charts, others draw different kinds of diagrams, and still others use simple point form notes. An outline with point form notes might look like this:


Thesis Though critics often argue otherwise, Margaret Atwood’s poem “You Fit into Me” is not straightforwardly a feminist poem.

Section 1 How people have interpreted the poem as feminist.

paragraph Source 1: J. Simmons (1993)

Thinks poem is about patriarchy

Quotation(s), pg. # *

paragraph Source 2: P. Somacarerra (2000)

Thinks poem is about complex romantic relationships

Quotation(s), pg. #

paragraph Critic 3: Atwood (year)

Says poem is not easy to define in a single way

Quotation(s), pg. #

Section 2 Why we should go beyond only feminist interpretation.

paragraph Against Simmons:

Woman’s psychology in poem is more complex

Quotation(s), line #

paragraph Against Simmons:

images Simmons overlooks that suggest complications

Images, line #

paragraph Poems complications

puns and double-meanings that complicate how we read it

Puns, line #

Conclusion (quote Atwood from section 1)

*In your outline, write specific information from your sources where I have written “quotation,” and note the actual page number where I’ve written “pg#.”

Note: There are many ways to order paragraphs and sections in a paper—this theory-analysis organization is only one of many templates.

This example should give you a sense of what some writers’ outlines look like (I would use something like this). This paper would be about a thousand words long, but the outline of a longer paper would have all of the same basic elements. You should more or less be able see the organization and main points the writer has in mind. You might also notice, however, that the outline is a bit vague or general. This generality and vagueness is acceptable in an outline—remember, the outline is for the writer, and only the writer needs to be able to fully understand it.

A couple of closing tips for making and using outlines…

  • Different writers use outlines in different ways. Before beginning a first draft, some writers have a very detailed outline, with each piece of evidence they will use clearly written out, each paragraph determined, each section decided. Other writers prefer a more general outline, working out the finer details of the paper as they write, and adding detail to the outline as they progress. Still other writers even find it helpful to begin their first draft with an incomplete outline, since they find that after beginning the first draft they are better able to anticipate the rest of the essay. These writers sometimes don’t finish their outlines until the essay is half-written. Any of these approaches to outlines will work; find the one that works for you.
  • Don’t marry your outline. It is a mistake to get too attached to your outline. Your outline is there to keep you on track, but as your thoughts on your essay’s argument and structure change, you should feel free to change, nix, and expand different parts of your outline.
  • Make notes on questions you have. If you can think of questions or concerns you will need to answer but don’t yet have the information to answer, write these questions or concerns into your outline so you know where the answers will go, what other information they will relate to, and when you will need to start tracking them down.
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Shane Bryson

Shane finished his master's degree in English literature in 2013 and has been working as a writing tutor and editor since 2009. He began proofreading and editing essays with Scribbr in early summer, 2014.

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