How to Write an Outline for an Essay

Essays are used to express ideas or opinions about a particular subject matter. It’s among the first tasks introduced to students at the primary levels of education. It’s also one of the widely accepted forms of assessing students that cut across most academic disciplines, especially in college. Schools and even places of employment might also require an essay from an applicant before considering them.

The silver lining is that many students have a working knowledge of how to write an essay and its structure composition, which usually includes an introduction, body, and a concluding paragraph. Still, the average student spends more than the necessary number of hours on a single task because they run out of ideas or lose their train of thought. Even the overall content of the paper suffers. That can be avoided by penning down a detailed outline before writing the first draft. Did you know even seasoned bestsellers writers do this? So what’s an outline, how does it improve your essays, and how do you write it? We are answering all these questions in our guide.

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Outline Format and Definition

An essay outline is a road map, a blueprint, or an essay diagram that helps writers organize their papers. Research papers and dissertations often have a table of contents — it’s something similar. On some level, most students create it without even realizing it, and that’s why it’s easy to learn how to write one. For instance, everyone researches and brainstorms for ideas before writing. Except that most students don’t put their thoughts in order before proceeding, and even if they do, it’s not enough to be an outline.

If writing an outline isn’t a task that you must submit for a grade, then it’s up to you how you format it. However, you should follow four main principles when creating a plan for your academic writing:

  1. Ranking — as you go from your main headings to subheadings, you move from general to more specific.
  2. Parallelism — every heading on the same hierarchy level should start with the same word type (verb, adjective, noun, etc.).
  3. Parity — all headings of the same hierarchy should be equally important and less important than the ones higher in rank.
  4. Fragmentation — each main heading should be divided into at least two subheadings.

The image below illustrates all four principles.

four outlining principles with an example

As for the format, the most common one is a standard alphanumeric outline template. Headlines are labeled in the following order (from the first to the most nested one):

  • I. Roman numerals
  • A. Capitalized letters
  • 1. Arabic numerals
  • a. Lowercase letters
  • (1) Arabic numerals in round brackets
  • (a) Lowercase letters in round brackets

For what you write in each point, you can either use brief phrases or full sentences that summarize the idea.

The decimal outline structure is another format you can apply, and it looks like this:

decimal outline example

Why is Outlining Essential?

Reasons vary, but usually, we use it to order logically all the data you collected during the brainstorming and researching stages. For research papers, a good outline helps a lot as you can easily keep track of all the information. Even for oral presentations, it’s a great way to identify the strength and weaknesses of their speech and make it more effective. To sum up, an outline’s core functions are:

  • Guiding you during the writing phrase
  • Helping you organize your thoughts and ideas
  • Presenting material in a logical order
  • Showing how your ideas link to one another
  • Serving as an abstract of your paper

Enhances thinking flow

Consider planning every next day before going to bed. You will realize that you undertake your daily activities without overthinking or second-guessing yourself because you know what to do every time. That is one of the proven life principles for most successful people. The same applies to paper writing. Your essays will feel like a walk in the park if you outline every point beforehand.

Saves time

Time is a commodity that none of us have in abundance, especially considering the responsibilities students have to undertake daily. So why spend hours on essays when you have mounting academic work to deal with? You’d rather waste less time and still get good grades. That’s what essay outlines are for: to both save time and improve your performance. Once you’ve planned out your essay, it takes less time to develop each idea.

Improves grades

From the perspective of students, the whole point of sweating over an essay is to get the best grades, and an outline can help you do that. If you take time to brainstorm and jot down every point you can raise in your essay, you will make fewer errors. If you arrange your ideas in an order that makes sense, your tutor will notice it and evaluate the paper accordingly.

How to Outline an Essay

Building an outline is an excellent way to make sure that every paragraph in your essay has a purpose. While outlining, you can see if a paragraph is essential or can be dropped with no harm to your paper. It also serves to check how your argument or main idea is advancing, which will help you speed up the proofreading stage. Now that you learned how significant outlining is let’s see how you can create one.

Before writing an outline, you should:

  • Define the goal of your essay
  • Determine the target audience
  • Create the thesis statement

The outlining process itself usually involves:

  1. Brainstorming the ideas you want to cover
  2. Separating those ideas into groups
  3. Arranging your data from general to specific
  4. Creating main headings and subheadings for paragraphs

Step 1: Research

The quality of your research determines the quality of your outline and your essay at large. That includes things like finding quotes from reputable sources or indicating the main supporting details to bolster your argument. Depending on your educational background, you might have to use different sources to expedite your research.

Any websites found on Google are not suitable as sources for papers written at a college or university level. Since there’s the Internet is full of unverified information, it’s vital to ascertain your source’s credibility before referring to it. Examples of trusted sites include Google Scholar, Microsoft Academic,, Refseek, and Oxford Academic.

Step 2: Organize

After choosing a topic and researching, it’s time to write the outline, using all the gathered information. It should match the layout of the essay: an introduction, a body section, and a conclusion. Have you ever written down something but couldn’t read from your handwriting later on? This usually happens if you have bad handwriting or if the information is too clustered to read. You don’t want to rely on such an outline, especially when pressed for time. So, you must organize your plan to match the essay structure.


Some ways to start your introduction paragraph are anecdotes, proverbs or idioms, definitions, statistics, quotes, or facts. You can begin your English essay outline by jotting down the main ideas for the introduction, which should also include a thesis statement. The point is to equip yourself with a road map, so short sentences should suffice.

Body paragraphs

Each body paragraph provides one idea that supports your thesis statement and is backed by facts, details, and examples. Depending on the volume of the essay, there will be more or fewer paragraphs here. But, when writing a standard essay, you would usually need three or four body sections, and each of them should be in your outline. Bear in mind that every paragraph must contain a topic sentence supported by two or three independent ideas with a link sentence at the end.


This paragraph is a sum-up every main point raised throughout the essay with some broader context. For a short paper, three to five sentences should do for the concluding section of your paper.

Below is a template of a standard five-paragraph essay outline structure template that you can download by clicking on the button under the image.

5 paragraph essay outline template

Once you’re done, remember to proofread and edit to ensure you haven’t missed something important.

Essay outline examples

Now that you know how to write an outline, analyze the samples below to get a better idea of how to apply this theory in practice. Each sample outline was hand-picked to make sure it corresponds to all key principles of creating one.


Bottom line

Here are three final recommendations for every student faced with essay outline writing:

  • Reread your assignment instructions to define the essay type and word count limitations.
  • Place your paper’s title and full thesis statement above first to always have them at hand.
  • Remember to take notes when researching to use that information in your outline later.

There are myriads of essays you have to write in high school and college. Argumentative, narrative, comparative, persuasive, and so many more types with different academic goals and structure peculiarities. Knowing how to make an outline for your essay is one of the keys to becoming a more skilled writer and getting top grades.

If you struggle with organizing your thoughts or have writer’s block well too often, planning the paper prior to writing might help a lot. Once you master outlining, you will complete your assignments faster and keep their quality high.

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When should I start working on my outline?

The earlier, the better. If you start researching without note-taking and creating an outline, you might do all that research in vain. You need to read a bit, find reputable sources that you will use, and analyze the evidence before planning. But, as soon as your argument starts shaping, you should start putting your thoughts on paper.

How much time should I devote to outlining?

Planning is a bit individual. Some people benefit from it more than others. If you can generate ideas easily but struggle with the writing stage, preparing a thorough outline will help. Conversely, if you’re having a hard time coming up with ideas, you might benefit more from writing right away. Overplanning can also be harmful when it doesn’t leave enough time to complete the paper.


  1. Walden University — Outlining
  2. Bow Valley College — Form a Thesis & Essay Outline
  3. Purdue University — Types of Outlines

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