How to Write an Essay Outline

An outline is an organizational tool that helps plan a paper. It helps organize research, provides structure, and keeps your essay on track.
Kelly Spancer
7
min read
Feb 4, 2021
Table of contents

Writing a comprehensive outline will save hours of writing and editing time, so it’s essential to master. Coming up with outlines is useful beyond just academics, any project you undertake will benefit from a well-structured outline. This article will cover everything you need to know about writing an essay outline and contains several handy templates!

What Is an Essay Outline?

Put simply, an essay outline is a brief plan of your paper. It lays out the structure of the essay, it includes all the main points, and it collects all your research and information. A good outline for essay writing helps you think about how the information will flow and makes sure that you have a plan moving forward. 


There can be many kinds of outlines depending on citation style and type of essay, but the key thing about all of them is that they help arrange and organize your main points to make the writing process easier.

How to Write an Outline For an Essay?

Almost all forms of writing can benefit from an outline. An academic essay usually follows the classic 5 paragraph format of essay writing, so that’s a good way to start structuring your outline. This means you’ll have an introduction section, 3 body paragraph sections, and a conclusion section. 


An outline is just for you, so don’t worry too much about making it perfect, no one else is going to see it. Fill it with as much information as you need, but remember that outline essay writing is supposed to help you organize the final essay. In case you need to hand in your outline this article covers more structured outlining as well and has several templates for you to follow.

Outline Writing Tips 

Keep these things in mind when creating an outline of an essay


  • Collect all your information in one place and they see what fits into your outline. 
  • Your outline will go through many drafts, don’t feel pressure to make the first version perfect
  • Follow a template and fill in the blanks, this will make sure your outline has some flow. But make sure you spend time restructuring the information, no template is perfect and you may see better ways of organizing your essay.
  • Work on your thesis before you start outlining. This will help structure the outline and make sure you only include relevant information. 

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General Essay Outline Format

If your outline needs to be submitted to your teacher then they may ask you to follow a specific outline format for the essay, these are discussed after this section. If you just need an outline for yourself, then this is a simple and short essay outline template to follow. Remember, this is YOUR outline, add things, skip sections, draw arrows, do whatever you need to to make it work for you.


Title Page

  • The title of your essay
  • Your name
  • Your teacher’s name
  • The name of the course

Introduction

  • A catchy hook
  • Two sentence summary of the purpose of your paper
  • Your thesis statement
  • Transition sentence to the first body paragraph

Body Paragraph 1

  • First main point, argument, or piece of evidence
  • How it connects to your thesis
  • Transition sentence to the second body paragraph

Body Paragraph 2

  • Second main point, argument, or piece of evidence
  • How it connects to your thesis
  • Transition sentence to the third body paragraph

Body Paragraph 3

  • Third main point, argument, or piece of evidence
  • How it connects to your thesis
  • Transition sentence to the conclusion

Conclusion

  • Summary of the main points of the paper
  • Your main conclusion
  • Reiterate your thesis statement

Citations

  • Works Cited/Bibliography

How to create an essay outline in MLA and APA styles

You’re probably familiar with the two main citation styles in use  - Modern Language Association (MLA) and American Psychological Association (APA). MLA is used for literature studies, philology, linguistics, etc. while APA is used for psychology, science, education studies, etc. 


In general, there are 2 types of outlines, a basic outline, and full sentence outline. The only difference between them is that a full sentence outline requires the use of full sentences in headings and a basic outline doesn’t. Ask your teacher which one is preferred if they want you to hand in an outline and they haven’t specified. In the next sections you’ll find an essay outline example in MLA and APA styles.

MLA Essay Outline Template

Though there is no specific format for an MLA outline, you should follow the general MLA format (double-spaced and Times New Roman 12 pt. font). Use an alphanumeric outline structure:


  • Headings in Roman numerals (I, II, III), 
  • Subheadings in uppercase letters (A, B, C); 
  • Then numbers (1, 2, 3) 
  • And finally lowercase letters (a, b, c). 
  • Make sure to add a period to each one. 

Here’s a sample basic outline for an essay in MLA style to make things clear. 

  • Introduction - Why the pyramids were confusing to Europeans
    • Summary - Europeans had misconceptions about Africa
    • Thesis statement - A lack of information, eurocentric pride, and disdain for Africa led to doubts about the origins of the pyramids
  • Body paragraph 1 - Age of the pyramids
    • First point - How they were discovered
    • Explanation - Why the pyramids seemed impossible
      • Subpoin - Tool use and geometry 
    • Transition - European discovery
  • Body paragraph 2 - Discovered by Europeans in the 1800s
    • First point - Colonial mindset
    • Explanation - Misconceptions about ancient Africa
    • Transition - Modern findings
  • Body paragraph 3 - The evidence
    • First point - New analysis of ancient building techniques
    • Explanation - Could have been done with hard work and dedication
    • Transition - Not aliens
  • Conclusion - An example of prejudiced thinking
    • Summary - The story of how pyramids were understood
    • Thesis - The past was strange
    • Conclusion - We know better now


APA Essay Outline Template

APA has a specified format for outlines. The headings format is alphanumeric like for MLA outlines, but there are 3 types of APA outlines - APA basic format, full sentence format, and decimal format.

APA basic format and full sentence format use the following heading structure:


  • Main Heading use Roman Numerals
  • The first level of subheadings use capital letters
  • Further subheadings use numbers 
  • Further subheadings use lower-case letters.
  • Further subheadings use numbers in parentheses


The only difference between APA basic format and full sentence format is that you write a full sentence rather than just a fragment for each point. 


The only difference between the decimal format and the other two is that it uses a different numbering system.

Decimal format example:


  • First heading is 1.0.
  • First paragraph in the first heading is 1.1.
  • First point of your first paragraph is 1.1.1.
  • Second sentence of your first paragraph is 1.1.2.
  • Third sentence of your second paragraph is 1.2.3.
  • Second heading is 2.0.
  • Third sentence in the second paragraph under the second heading is 2.2.3.


If that seems complicated, don’t worry! It’s very rarely asked for and it’s very simple to get used to. 


Here’s a full sentence APA template to go over.

  • Introduction - The pyramids have been fascinating to people since they were first constructed over 6000 years ago, but when they were re-discovered by Europeans some absurd theories came into existence.
    • Summary - European misconceptions about ancient tools and building techniques as well as African history led to many misconceptions.
    • Thesis statement - A lack of information, eurocentric pride, and disdain for Africa led to doubts about the origins of the pyramids.
  • Body paragraph 1 - It’s staggering to think that the ancient Egyptians were as old to the ancient Romans as the ancient Romans are to us now.
    • First point - The pyramids have been visible and famous since they were constructed, but Europeans visiting Egypt in the middle ages claim to have rediscovered them and did not believe in their African origins.
    • Explanation - The massive size and fine construction of the pyramids made it seem impossible.
      • Subpoin - Knowledge of what building tools and methods were available in ancient Egypt were not available.
        • Subpoin - The size and precision cutting of the stones stumped scientists.
    • Transition - The enlightenment and age of science helped solve some of these mysteries.
  • Body paragraph 2 - It wasn’t till Napoleon in the 18th century that European scientists started analyzing ancient Egyptian culture.
    • First point - Till then, the prevailing colonial mindset was just to loot and plunder as much as possible.
    • Explanation - Europe had a dogma of “civilizing the savages”.
    • Transition - These new scientific studies started unearthing clues to how the pyramids were constructed.
  • Body paragraph 3 - After 1940 many expeditions and excavations took place and since the 1980s many questions have been answered.
    • First point - The discovery of the village of workers made it clear that the pyramids were of African Origin.
    • Explanation - A greater understanding of ancient Egyptian culture based on scientific data gave more evidence.
    • Transition - Finally people could confidently answer that it wasn’t aliens!
  • Conclusion - This was a glaring example of prejudiced thinking during the middle ages.
    • Summary - The story of how pyramids were understood is connected to the discovery of how ancient Egypt used to be.
    • Conclusion - We can learn not to judge before we have reliable data and evidence.

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Find your essay outline template by your essay type

Different types of essays need different kinds of information and some have unique structures of their own. In this section you’ll find simple essay outline templates for 5 common essay types.

Argumentative essay outline example

An argumentative essay uses evidence and logic to convince the reader that your point of view on an issue is correct. An outline is especially useful for this type of essay since it helps organize your arguments. Take a look at this outline example for essay template. 

  • Introduction
    • Hook
    • Background information
    • Thesis
  • Body Paragraph 1
    • First argument
      • Evidence 1
      • Evidence 2
      • Evidence 3
  • Body Paragraph 2
    • Second argument
      • Evidence 1
      • Evidence 2
      • Evidence 3
  • Body Paragraph 3
    • Opposing argument 1
      • Your counterclaim with the evidence
    • Opposing argument 2
      • Your counterclaim with the evidence
  • Conclusion
    • Summary of your main arguments
    • Importance of your viewpoint


Expository essay outline example

An expository essay presents facts from both sides of an issue and makes an unbiased observation at the end. Keep your own opinions and emotions out of this type of essay. An outline can help arrange the various perspectives as well as make sure you don’t accidentally show bias. Here’s a template for you to follow.

  • Introduction
    • Hook
    • Present your topic
    • Thesis
  • Body Paragraph 1
    • First topic sentence
      • Evidence 
      • Analysis 
      • Transition 
  • Body Paragraph 2
    • Second topic Sentence
      • Evidence 
      • Analysis
      • Transition
  • Body Paragraph 3
    • Third topic Sentence
      • Evidence
      • Analysis
      • Transition
  • Conclusion
    • Summary of the main points
    • Importance of the topic 
    • Possible further research


Reflective essay outline example

Reflective essays are one of the most fun essays to write. They ask you to write about an experience in your life and analyze how it impacted you. These are less formal than typical academic essays and are usually written in the first person (so use personal pronouns like “I”). These types of essays offer a lot of freedom so there is no particular way to write them, still, an outline can help organize your thoughts and clarify which emotions, feelings, and sensations you want to write about.

  • Introduction
    • Hook
    • Teaser for the full story
    • Thesis
  • Body Paragraph 1
    • Introduce the story
      • Setting
      • Characters
      • Antagonist/conflict
      • Transition
  • Body Paragraph 2
    • The build-up
      • Details about the conflict
      • Role of characters 
      • Climax
  • Body Paragraph 3
    • Payoff
      • The resolution of the climax
      • The conclusion of the story 
  • Conclusion
    • Summary of the events
    • What you learned
    • How it impacted you

Compare and contrast essay outline example

Compare and contrast essays ask you to analyze two things and examine any connections. This type of essay isn’t as formal or structured as expository essays so you don’t have to follow a specific structure. An outline is helpful to collect all the information and to help draw conclusions though, so here’s an example outline.

  • Introduction
    • Hook
    • Background information about the 2 points
    • Thesis
  • Body Paragraph 1
    • Point 1
      • Claim 1
      • Claim 2
      • Claim 3
  • Body Paragraph 2
    • Point 2
      • Claim 1
      • Claim 2
      • Claim 3
  • Body Paragraph 3
    • Connect point 1 and point 2
      • Similarities
      • Differences
      • Comparisons
  • Conclusion
    • Conclusions from analysis
    • Other points to compare against
    • Further research


Research essay outline example

A research essay requires finding reputable sources, analyzing and synthesizing information, and presenting your conclusion backed by evidence. These are popular assignments because they require critical thinking skills as well as research skills. Always use an outline if you’re assigned a research essay, it will help organize information and shorten writing time.

  • Introduction
    • Hook
    • Background information
    • Thesis
  • Body Paragraph 1
    • First research finding
      • Fact 1
      • Fact 2
      • Analysis
  • Body Paragraph 2
    • Second research finding
      • Fact 1
      • Fact 2
      • Analysis
  • Body Paragraph 3
    • Analysis of research
      • What you agree with and why with the evidence
      • What you disagree with and why with the evidence
  • Conclusion
    • Summary of research
    • Importance of research
    • Possible further research


Quick Wrap Up

There is no denying that an outline helps with the writing process. Famous authors, YouTube scripts, speechwriters, everyone uses outlines to help organize their thoughts and present information effectively. Make sure you master this skill because it’s going to be useful throughout your life. 


If an outline is just for you (it’s not going to be given to a teacher) then follow a template, but there’s no reason to stick to it exactly. Draw on it, add sections, delete sections, do whatever you need to do to make the information you have to make the most sense to you. On the other hand, if it’s supposed to be handed in, check what format it’s supposed to be in and follow the format. 


The specific templates in this article are a good starting point, but you may need to add body paragraphs or make other minor changes here and there. After all, a template is just a guide.  


Hopefully, this article has given you tips, outlines, and a bunch of other helpful information, but if you need any help on how to outline an essay, Studyfy is the right place to look! Their experts have helped thousands of students write essays and are outline pros.