How to write an essay outline

Before writing an essay, you might be asked to create an essay outline as a separate assignment. But, even if you aren’t required to do so, creating an outline as part of the writing process is always a good idea.

An essay outline is a strategy for structuring and organizing the key points of your essay into sections, making it easier for you to compose an essay.

Here are few reasons why you should write an essay outline:

Essential parts of an outline and essay

essay outline structure

This is the first paragraph of your essay where you need to grad your reader’s attention and state your thesis statement.  

An essay without a thesis statement isn’t worth reading so it’s better to include your thesis statement in the outline.

The body part follows the introduction and usually includes at least three paragraphs, and you need to include each paragraph one in the outline.

When planning your paragraphs, don’t forget to make use of transition sentences and transition words, as well as suitable headings, and correct capitalization.

It’s the last paragraph of your essay. Here’s where you’ll put the final touches on your paper. Reaffirm your thesis and the purpose of your paper in your conclusion.

Essay outline examples

This is how the structure of your outline is supposed to look. You need to repeat the steps in the body if you have more than one body paragraph.

essay outline infographic (740 × 540 px) 3

A general essay outline example

  1. Introduction
    1. Hook sentence (Grab the reader's attention)
    2. Introduce your topic & background
    3. Thesis statement

  2. Body paragraphs
    1. Topic sentence (What the paragraph will talk about)
    2. Evidence to back up your claim (Statistics, facts, examples, etc...)
    3. Relation to thesis statement (Explain how it's relevant to your thesis statement)

  3. Conclusion
    1. Summary (Summarize the key points of your essay)
    2. Restate your thesis statement
    3. Have a call to action & closing sentence (What you want readers to do/think when they've finished reading your essay)

Now that we clearly know what to expect from a basic essay outline. Let’s continue with the examples for other types of essays such as argumentative, expository, and persuasive essay outlines. 

First, you’ll see an outline for a 5-paragraph argumentative essay on the topic of “benefits of exercise”. 

Argumentative essay outline example

  1. Introduction
    1. Hook sentence: Exercise is an essential part of a healthy lifestyle, but many people neglect it.
    2. Background: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only 23% of American adults get enough exercise.
    3. Thesis statement: Regular exercise has numerous benefits, including physical, mental, and emotional well-being.

  2. Paragraph 1: Physical benefits of exercise
    1. Improved cardiovascular health
    2. Increased strength and endurance
    3. Reduced risk of chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease

  3. Paragraph 2: Mental benefits of exercise
    1. Improved cognitive function
    2. Reduced stress and anxiety
    3. Improved sleep quality

  4. Paragraph 3: Emotional benefits of exercise
    1. Improved self-confidence and self-esteem
    2. Reduced symptoms of depression
    3. Improved overall mood

  5. Conclusion
    1. Restate your thesis statement: Rephrase your thesis statement to remind the reader of the goal of your essay
    2. Summary: Summarize the key points given in your paragraphs
    3. Call to action: It's never too late to start exercising and reaping the benefits of a healthier lifestyle.

Now, you’ll see a 5-paragraph narrative essay outline on the topic of “my first time travelling to a foreign country.”

Narrative essay essay outline example

  1. Introduction
    1. Hook: Traveling abroad can be a life-changing experience, and my first trip was no exception.
    2. Background: I had always dreamed of traveling to Europe, but had never had the opportunity until I was 23 years old.
    3. Thesis statement: My first time traveling abroad was filled with excitement, fear, and unforgettable memories.

  2. Paragraph 1: Preparations and departure
    1. Researching the destination and planning the itinerary
    2. Packing and getting ready for the trip
    3. The first time boarding a plane and feeling nervous but excited

  3. Paragraph 2: Arrival and first impressions
    1. The thrill of landing in a new country and experiencing a different culture
    2. Overcoming language barriers and getting lost in a new city
    3. The initial culture shock and feeling overwhelmed by the differences

  4. Paragraph 3: Adventures and discoveries
    1. Visiting historical landmarks and museums
    2. Trying new foods and experiencing local cuisine
    3. Making new friends and experiencing the nightlife

  5. Conclusion
    1. Reflection: Reflecting on the experience and the impact it had on me
    2. Lessons learned: The lessons learned and the new perspectives gained
    3. Impressions The desire to travel more and explore other parts of the world

Literary analyses are slightly different from other types, so is the outline. Let’s have a look at the literary analysis outline on the theme of identity in the novel “The Catcher in the Rye” by J.D.Salinger: 

Literary analysis outline example

  1. Introduction
    1. Hook: J.D. Salinger's novel "The Catcher in the Rye" explores the theme of identity through the protagonist Holden Caulfield's struggle with finding his place in the world..
    2. Background: The novel was published in 1951 and has become a classic in American literature.
    3. Thesis statement: Through Holden's experiences and relationships, Salinger illustrates the complex and often painful process of finding one's identity in a world that can be alienating and confusing.

  2. Paragraph 1: Holden's Struggle with Identity
    1. Holden's sense of alienation from the society he lives in
    2. His desire to preserve innocence and reject the superficiality of adulthood
    3. His struggle with mental illness and the impact it has on his sense of self

  3. Paragraph 2: Relationships and Identity
    1. Holden's relationships with women and how they contribute to his understanding of his own identity
    2. The role of Holden's deceased brother, Allie, in shaping his identity
    3. Holden's interactions with authority figures and how they challenge his sense of self

  4. Paragraph 3: Symbolism and Identity
    1. The symbolism of the catcher in the rye and its significance in Holden's identity
    2. The significance of Holden's red hunting hat as a symbol of his individuality
    3. The role of setting, such as the Museum of Natural History, in shaping Holden's identity

  5. Conclusion
    1. Restatement: Restate your thesis statement
    2. Summarize main points
    3. Implications: Implications of the novel's exploration of identity for readers, such as the importance of self-reflection and acceptance of individuality

Now that you’ve seen different types of outline samples for different essays, let’s continue with the steps of creating a great outline. 

Step 1: Understand your assignment

First and foremost, read your writing assignment. Make sure you know:

Decide on the purpose of your essay

“What is the purpose of my essay?” is a question that needs to be answered. Do you want to educate, convince, or just entertain your readers?

If you understand the purpose of your essay or assignment, you’ll know what kind of thesis statement to suggest, what writing methods to use, or how to depict analysis in your paper. 

Identify the audience

Yes, your essay will be read and evaluated by a teacher; but, who do you actually choose to read your essay?

Answering these questions will help you define the toning in the essay.

Step 2: Create a thesis statement

Thesis statement is literally the goal of your essay. The sooner you know the goal, the easier your planning process will be.  So if you know your thesis statement earlier and include it in your outline, your writing process will be way easier. 

When you present your thesis statement in the outline, you can also see what topic sentences to use. Because each topic sentence (first sentence of your paragraph) needs to somewhat support your thesis statement. 

Example: Thesis statement in the outline

  1. Introduction
    1. Hook sentence
    2. Background
    3. Thesis statement: Increasing access to education for girls in developing countries is crucial for achieving gender equality and improving economic and social outcomes for individuals and communities.
  2. Outline continues with the body paragraphs...

Step 3: Choose an outline structure

So now that you understood your assignment and reader, and you’ve defined your thesis statement. It’s time to decide which outline structure to use! 

There are two main structures for an essay outline: alphanumeric and decimal structures.

Alphanumeric structure

This is the most popular outline structure, and most people will recognize it right away. You apply the formatting in the following order:

Alphanumeric structure outline example

  1. Main Point 1
    1. Supporting detail
        1. Example of evidence for supporting detail 1
                a. Further explanation or analysis of example or evidence

Decimal Structure

A decimal outline is a structure of outlining that indicates how each section of a paper connects to the others. 

A decimal outline is similar to an alphanumeric outline, but it varies in that it uses decimals to indicate headings and subheadings.

Decimal structure outline example

  1. Main Point 1
    1. 1. Supporting detail
        1.1.1 Example of evidence for supporting detail 1

Step 4: Write your outline

So we now have thesis statement and type of outline structure defined, it’s time to fill in the sections on your essay outline.

Outline your introduction

Outline the body paragraphs

For each paragraph, include:

The more information you have in your outline, the easier it will be to form your thoughts when you write.

You should also compose a transition sentence for each paragraph to have a smooth structure and overview.

Outline the conclusion

In your conclusion, reaffirm your thesis statement. Write a closing sentence, which is a sentence that discusses the significance of your thesis and offers answers to the issue you discussed in the essay.

Key takeaways

By following the steps outlined in this article, you can create a well-organized essay outline that will serve as a valuable guide throughout the writing process. 

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Osman Sirin
Founder @Tamara Research, Linguistics major and full time digital marketeer, loves dogs, sports, and nature