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How Do I Write an Essay Outline?

Leigia Rosales
Updated Jan 26, 2024
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Essays are often assigned in high school or college for classes ranging from English to History and everything in between. Knowing how to write a good essay is a crucial skill for any student and starts with understanding how to structure an essay outline. While the precise structure of an essay outline will depend somewhat on the type of essay being written and the topic, the basic format generally applies to all outlines. When creating an essay outline, the writer should begin with an introduction, followed by three or more supporting paragraphs, and end with a conclusion.

There are a number of different types of essay formats used depending on the subject matter and purpose of the essay. A compare-and-contrast format may be used, for example, when the writer wishes to give the reader objective information about two or more items in a category. A persuasive essay, on the other hand, is intended to sway the reader to adopt the writer's point of view on a topic.

The basic format for an essay is written using Roman numerals as the headings. For example, each paragraph usually receives its own respective Roman numeral followed by a period; so, the introductory paragraph would be listed as "I." on the outline. Points under the initial Roman numeral are then indented and written using capital letters in alphabetical order followed by a period — A. then B. then C., and so on. Sub-points under each point will be indented and written using numerals, such as 1. then 2. then 3. Even more sub-points can be added indented and underneath the numerals, but using a lower-case form of the letter and a period — a. then b. then c., and so on.

Regardless of the type, an essay outline should begin with a thesis statement, which will serve as the main component of the introductory paragraph in the actual essay. The thesis statement is where the writer specifically states what he or she will prove or discuss throughout the essay. The outline should include a one-sentence thesis upon which the writer will expand when writing the actual essay.

Following the thesis statement, the outline should have three to five supporting paragraphs; however, this depends on the assigned page requirements and the type of essay being written. Each paragraph needs its own topic sentence, which will tell the reader what the paragraph will discuss. The individual paragraphs should each include one idea or concept that serves to prove or strengthen the thesis statement and supporting evidence. For the second, and subsequent paragraphs, the opening sentence should be a transition sentence that easily flows from the previous paragraph.

Under each opening sentence, an essay outline may include "bullet points" or key words that the writer plans to use in the paragraph. By adding key words or phrases in the outline, writing the essay will be easier and the writer will be less likely to leave out an important point. Sub-points or examples for each point can also be added to the outline depending on how in-depth a writer desires it to be.

At the end of the essay outline, the writer needs a conclusion. The conclusion should include a sentence which reaffirms the original thesis sentence and ties up the essay for the reader. Both the thesis statement and the concluding sentence should focus on the topic of the essay and be able to tell the reader what the writer was trying to convey in the essay.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Leigia Rosales
By Leigia Rosales
Leigia Rosales is a former attorney turned freelance writer. With a law degree and a background in legal practice, she crafts compelling content that informs and engages readers. Her ability to understand complex topics and communicate them effectively makes her a valuable asset to any content creation team.
Discussion Comments
By Scrbblchick — On Mar 06, 2014

Writing an essay or paper can be approached like building a house. The thesis statement is the foundation. The outline is the framework and the writing puts up sheetrock and paint.

An outline should be written before the essay. Some people write the essay and then form the outline around it, but this can be counterproductive.

An outline helps the writer organize his or her thoughts into a coherent whole. They can take some time, but usually save the writer time in the long run, since the writer isn't chasing wild research geese but is, instead, working on the main points of the essay.

Outlines can be altered according to research results, so they are not set in stone. Mostly, they give direction to the essay, and this is critical in writing a clear, concise paper.

Leigia Rosales
Leigia Rosales
Leigia Rosales is a former attorney turned freelance writer. With a law degree and a background in legal practice, she...
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