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Doing An Essay Outline

Now that the school year has begun you will be receiving several essay assignments. One way to organize your thoughts before writing is to create an essay outline.

What is an essay outline?  This type of plan is simply a tool to help organize and write a stronger essay.  In this article, we will discuss why writing an outline for an essay is helpful, how it will improve your writing, and how to go about creating one.

Contents

Why Create an Outline

Sitting down to write an essay can be overwhelming. Writing an outline helps alleviate some of that frustration. An outline is useful for many reasons. It will help you organize thoughts, present ideas logically and with a natural flow, and clarify your thesis and conclusion.

Find out the basic essay information with this article: What is an Essay?

Overall an outline will help you communicate your point in a clear and organized format. The structure of your essay will heavily rely on the outline you compose.

Preparing Your Outline

Before you begin writing an outline for the essay, make sure you understand the assignment. What exactly is the instructor looking for? Next up, follow these simple steps:

  1. Develop a Topic

The first step in your outline is to identify your topic. Once you have a clear understanding of the instructor’s expectations, begin brainstorming topics that fit within the assignment. Make a list of ideas and pick the ones that peak your interest. If you are stuck between a few ideas, begin freewriting. Give yourself 5 minutes for each idea and just write everything that comes to mind without editing or stopping. The idea that inspires you the most may just be the perfect essay topic for this assignment. Essays are easier to write and read if the author is passionate about what he/she is writing.

  1. Identify the purpose, audience, argument/ideas

Once you have developed a topic you will need to define the purpose (or the reason) for writing this essay as well as who you are writing for. By having a clear understanding of the purpose, the audience, and the necessary arguments/ideas that need to be addressed you will be better prepared to write an influential essay.

Take a second to look back over the instructions for the assignment and ask yourself the following questions.

  • What are the objectives of the assignment?
  • Are there keywords that stand out in the instructions?
  • Are you being asked to persuade, entertain, enlighten, or educate your audience?
  • Who is your audience? Is it the teacher, the other students, or someone else?
  • What arguments or counter ideas might the audience have to your topic/idea?
  • What emotions might these ideas bring up and how can you counterbalance them with facts?
  1. Develop a thesis

Now that you know your topic, purpose, audience; and have developed your main arguments/ideas – it is time to write your thesis statement. A thesis is only one to two sentences long and highlights the question your essay will be answering. It does not state your opinion or list facts, but rather identifies what you will be arguing for or against within the body of your essay. Thesis statements must be accurate, clear, and on-topic.

Structuring Your Outline

Now that you have the above information, the question is: how to make an essay outline?

Decide on what structure to use. There are two main essay outline formatsto choose from:  alphanumeric and decimal.

The alphanumeric format uses Roman numerals (I, II, III, IV, etc), capital letters (A, B, C, D, etc.), Arabic numerals (1, 2, 3, 4, etc.), and lowercase letters (a, b, c, d, etc.).  This one is more common than the other.

The decimal format only uses numbers. It begins with 1.0. Subsections add a decimal. The most important points under 1.0 would be 1.1, 1.2, etc. The subsections beneath 1.1 would be 1.1.1, 1.1.2, 1.1.3, etc. For a visual example of an essay outline scroll to the bottom of this article.

For the visual examples of the stated outline formats, scroll down to the bottom of this article.

Apply sub-section structure. The detailed content of your essay will be found within the sub-sections. The main sections are your fundamental ideas and arguments. The sub-sections are the facts that support them. Think of the section title as the topic sentence for your paragraph and the sub-section as the tiny details that support the topic. Your sub-sections need to flow naturally one to the other.

Integrate paragraphs into your outline. Begin fleshing out your section and subsection notes. Your introduction will need to include your topic and thesis statement. For a short essay, this only needs to be one paragraph. Refer to your assignment instructions to clarify the length. Next is the body. This section will consist of several paragraphs, each playing a supportive role for your thesis. The final section of your outline is the conclusion. This is a summary of everything you have said in your essay. Paraphrase your thesis statement and highlight the arguments made within the essay to support it.

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Essay Outline Examples

Now, it’s time to showcase the most common essay outline types. We have wrapped up the content of the article you are currently reading into an outline. Feel free to navigate within the article with the help of the provided frameworks.

Alphanumeric format essay outline sample:

Decimal format essay outline sample:

Drawing the Line

Now that you know how to use an essay outline you are well on your way to writing clear, persuasive essays. This tool is sure to help improve your writing and your grade. All that is left now is to use it.

In case there are any questions still left, you are free to skim through our essay writing guide to find helpful information on how to plan, structure and write different types of essays.

Guides

Trying to devise a structure for your essay can be one of the most difficult parts of the writing process. Making a detailed outline before you begin writing is a good way to make sure your ideas come across in a clear and logical order. A good outline will also save you time in the revision process, reducing the possibility that your ideas will need to be rearranged once you've written them.

The First Steps

Before you can begin outlining, you need to have a sense of what you will argue in the essay. From your analysis and close readings of primary and/or secondary sources you should have notes, ideas, and possible quotes to cite as evidence. Let's say you are writing about the 1999 Republican Primary and you want to prove that each candidate's financial resources were the most important element in the race. At this point, your notes probably lack much coherent order. Most likely, your ideas are still in the order in which they occurred to you; your notes and possible quotes probably still adhere to the chronology of the sources you've examined. Your goal is to rearrange your ideas, notes, and quotes—the raw material of your essay—into an order that best supports your argument, not the arguments you've read in other people's works. To do this, you have to group your notes into categories and then arrange these categories in a logical order.

Generalizing

The first step is to look over each individual piece of information that you've written and assign it to a general category. Ask yourself, "If I were to file this in a database, what would I file it under?" If, using the example of the Republican Primary, you wrote down an observation about John McCain's views on health care, you might list it under the general category of  "Health care policy." As you go through your notes, try to reuse categories whenever possible. Your goal is to reduce your notes to no more than a page of category listings.

Now examine your category headings. Do any seem repetitive? Do any go together? "McCain's expenditure on ads" and "Bush's expenditure on ads," while not exactly repetitive, could easily combine into a more general category like "Candidates' expenditures on ads." Also, keep an eye out for categories that no longer seem to relate to your argument. Individual pieces of information that at first seemed important can begin to appear irrelevant when grouped into a general category.

Now it's time to generalize again. Examine all your categories and look for common themes. Go through each category and ask yourself, "If I were to place this piece of information in a file cabinet, what would I label that cabinet?" Again, try to reuse labels as often as possible: "Health Care," "Foreign Policy," and "Immigration" can all be contained under "Policy Initiatives." Make these larger categories as general as possible so that there are no more than three or four for a 7-10 page paper.

Ordering

With your notes grouped into generalized categories, the process of ordering them should be easier. To begin, look at your most general categories. With your thesis in mind, try to find a way that the labels might be arranged in a sentence or two that supports your argument. Let's say your thesis is that financial resources played the most important role in the 1999 Republican Primary. Your four most general categories are "Policy Initiatives," "Financial Resources," "Voters' Concerns," and "Voters' Loyalty." You might come up with the following sentence: ÒAlthough McCain's policy initiatives were closest to the voters' concerns, Bush's financial resources won the voters' loyalty.Ó This sentence should reveal the order of your most general categories. You will begin with an examination of McCain's and Bush's views on important issues and compare them to the voters' top concerns. Then you'll look at both candidates' financial resources and show how Bush could win voters' loyalty through effective use of his resources, despite his less popular policy ideas.

With your most general categories in order, you now must order the smaller categories. To do so, arrange each smaller category into a sentence or two that will support the more general sentence you've just devised. Under the category of "Financial Resources," for instance, you might have the smaller categories of "Ad Expenditure," "Campaign Contributions" and "Fundraising." A sentence that supports your general argument might read: "Bush's early emphasis on fundraising led to greater campaign contributions, allowing him to have a greater ad expenditure than McCain."

The final step of the outlining process is to repeat this procedure on the smallest level, with the original notes that you took for your essay. To order what probably was an unwieldy and disorganized set of information at the beginning of this process, you need now only think of a sentence or two to support your general argument. Under the category "Fundraising," for example, you might have quotes about each candidate's estimation of its importance, statistics about the amount of time each candidate spent fundraising, and an idea about how the importance of fundraising never can be overestimated. Sentences to support your general argument might read: "No candidate has ever raised too much money [your idea]. While both McCain and Bush acknowledged the importance of fundraising [your quotes], the numbers clearly point to Bush as the superior fundraiser [your statistics]." The arrangement of your ideas, quotes, and statistics now should come naturally.

Putting It All Together

With these sentences, you have essentially constructed an outline for your essay. The most general ideas, which you organized in your first sentence, constitute the essay's sections. They follow the order in which you placed them in your sentence. The order of the smaller categories within each larger category (determined by your secondary sentences) indicates the order of the paragraphs within each section. Finally, your last set of sentences about your specific notes should show the order of the sentences within each paragraph. An outline for the essay about the 1999 Republican Primary (showing only the sections worked out here) would look something like this:

I. POLICY INITIATIVES

II.  VOTERS' CONCERNS

III.  FINANCIAL RESOURCES

            A.  Fundraising

                        a.  Original Idea

                        b.  McCain Quote/Bush Quote

                        c.  McCain Statistics/Bush Statistics

            B.  Campaign Contributions

            C.  Ad Expenditure

IV.  VOTERS' LOYALTY

Copyright 2000, David Kornhaber, for the Writing Center at Harvard University