How to Write an Outline for an Essay

Essay outlines are a useful preliminary step when writing a research paper. They help you get your thoughts in order and build a more persuasive essay. They’re so useful that as you move from high school to more advanced academic writing, your lecturers and teachers may start asking you to submit an essay outline before turning your paper in.

We’ll talk you through how to write an essay outline that is cogent, coherent, and helps produce a persuasive essay.

How to Write an Essay Outline

The best place to start is by identifying the topics you want to cover. When we advise writing ideas, topics, and relevant notes on index cards.

Index cards are ideal for planning both your essay and an effective outline because you can shuffle them around until you’re happy with the order. For the best results, limit yourself to one sentence or note per index card.

For now, in the essay outline stage, how you order your index cards is irrelevant because you can always move them around later. Right now, the most important task is to divide everything into categories. To do this, the first step is to identify your main point. Separate each index card you think ties into that theme. If a card doesn’t support your main point, start thinking about what the card relates to instead, and group similar topics together. These will become your subtopics.

It’s worth stressing that at this point nothing needs to be in full sentences. When you’re outlining an essay, your notes will still be in the brainstorming stage as you collect information from different sources.

Citing Your Sources

The other thing to keep in mind as you take notes is that it’s important to cite your sources. There’s nothing worse than starting to write your essay and realizing you can’t remember which source you got what information from.

For that reason, some teachers may request a bibliography ahead of time. However, it’s more likely you’ll compile this towards the end of the essay, and when you do, you’ll have to pay attention to the style guide. Different authors will organize their sources differently, so you’ll have to become conversant in various citation styles, including:

  • APA
  • MLA
  • Chicago

Each style guide has different rules for citations, so familiarize yourself with the relevant style before you start. But when you’re writing notes for an outline, all you need to know is which source gave you the idea. If you use index cards, the easiest thing to do is to put a note in one of the corners telling you what book and which page the information came from.

If you’re writing longhand or on a word processor, it may be easier to create headings for each source and type up your notes underneath. The important thing is that you have a system you can interpret and that makes writing your essay outline as easy as possible.

Parts of an Essay

With your sources duly noted, you can start sorting through your categories and consider how they fit into the shape of your essay. Typically, most types of essays follow a five paragraph structure, including:

  • Introduction
  • Three body paragraphs
  • Conclusion

However, high school assignments may only need about three body paragraphs. This should give you enough time to lay out a thesis, expand on your sub-points and restate your main point in the conclusion.


In your introduction, you’ll write a sentence to draw the reader in and clearly state your thesis.

Body Paragraphs

Here you can expand on your thesis statement. Each sub-point should get its own body paragraph, including any additional relevant information or supporting arguments.

Concluding Paragraph

End by restating your thesis. This doesn’t have to be too complicated. A helpful tip is to reiterate the thesis statement, add a sentence reminding readers what you discussed, and wrap it up with a sentence that shows you proved your case.

Why Do You Need an Essay Outline?

It sounds like more work, but there are good reasons for writing an essay outline before you start.

Solidifies Understanding

The first and best reason is that explaining something to someone else is one of the best ways to understand it. And the more succinctly you can explain the topic, the better.

Essay outlines require you to condense what you want to say, forcing you to make your argument as clear as possible. This helps you get a sense of your essay and how to structure your argument for maximum clarity.

Consolidates Information

Another reason for writing an essay outline is that it helps you process information. This is especially true of analytic essays with an information component. Data can feel nebulous and abstruse until you sit down and assemble that information in a place that’s easy to interpret.

Stops You Forgetting Anything

Even the most organized person can forget a major point. Writing information down, either on paper or on the keyboard, helps you remember information.

Identify Two Things: Your Audience and Your Main Point

Whether your essay outline is for an argumentative essay, an expository essay, or a persuasive essay, there are two things you need to focus on:

  • Who reads your essay

  • What your main point is

Start by thinking about your audience. Who reads your essay affects everything, from the kind of language you use to how you structure your essay. For instance, if you’re writing for experts, you can get more technical than if you expect a layperson to read your essay.

Once you know your target audience, figure out your main general idea. This is the lynchpin of your thesis statement. It tells you what you want to say and why.

Decide on Your Outline Structure

Once your audience and main points have been identified you can start drafting your outline. But before that, you need to decide how to structure the outline.

There are two common ways of doing this. The first is the alphanumeric structure, and the second is the decimal structure.

Alphanumeric Structure

In the alphanumeric structure, you use a combination of letters and numbers to organize your outline.

As you get further into a topic, you shift from roman numerals and capital letters to Arabic numerals and lowercase letters. These delineate subheadings from each other and tell the reader you plan to get further into the heart of your subject.

An alphanumeric outline might look something like this:

I. First heading

A. Heading for first relevant sub-point

1. Heading expanding this sub-point

a. Further expansion of sub-point

If you decide to go deeper into a particular topic, you can also include bracketed numerals and lowercase letters.

Decimal Structure

The decimal structure is similar but simplifies your outline by only relying on Arabic numerals. Here’s an example of a decimal structure essay outline:

1.1 Main point

1.2 Transitional segue

1.3 Topic sentence

1.3.1 Expansion of topic sentence

Notice how, in both outlines, you are carefully leading the reader from beginning to middle to end. What you want to say and why should always be clear from you. It should always be clear from the outline what you are doing or saying and why.

Essay Outline Examples

There are several ways to outline an essay. Here are some essay outline templates to help get you started.

Argumentative Essay Outline

Argumentative essays use a combination of data and analysis to make a case for or against something. Here’s an argumentative essay using a decimal outline exploring the effects of sugar on children:

1. Introduction

1.1 Briefly outline the problems sugar can cause in young children

1.2 Elaborate on parental concerns

1.3 Incorporate thesis statement either for or against sugar

2. Sugar and Sleeplessness

2.1 Discuss how sugar can cause elevated energy and discourage healthy sleeping patterns

2.2 Provide data backing up your claim

2.3 Analyze data and use it to further your argument

3. Sugar and Tooth Decay

3.1 Briefly outline your argument

3.2 Use data to support your argument

3.3 Interpret data and explain its relevance

4. Present a counterargument

4.1 Explain the counterargument

4.2 Provide data or sources that help make this case

4.3 Analyze the data, explaining why you disagree with this argument and have taken the opposite view.

5. Conclusion

5.1 Summarize your main points

5.2 Remind readers why you rejected the counterargument and decided sugar was unhealthy for children

5.3 Reiterate your thesis statement

5.4 Close with further thoughts and the possibility of pursuing research further

Literary Analysis Outline

In a literary analysis essay or persuasive essay, you’re making a case for your interpretation of the text. This kind of essay allows ample room for opinion, but crucially, you need to be able to support it with quotations, so make sure to have them handy.

Here’s an example of a literary essay looking at the role of food in Barbara Pym’s book, Quartet in Autumn.

This essay template uses an alphanumeric structure:

I. Introduction

1. Briefly discuss Pym’s use of food throughout her novels.

2.  Elaborate on the role of food in Quartet in Autumn specifically.

3. Integrate the research question.

4. State your thesis.

II. Food and Community

1. Discuss Norman, Marcia, and their shared coffee tin

a. Compare/contrast with Letty and Edwin, their lack of arrangement and isolation

2. Discuss the role of church communities and feeding the quartet. Look at:

a. Letty’s Chinese neighbors and their communal Christmas feast

b. Edwin and local priest’s post-evensong pub visit

III. Connections Between Starvation and Loneliness

1. Discuss Marcia’s unopened tins.

a. Emphasize the connection between Marcia’s deliberate starvation and her visits to her doctor

2. Discuss the funeral meal after Marcia’s death.

a. Comment on the irony of going out for a meal when Marcia died from severely disordered eating.

b. Follow up with exploration of the statement by Norman and Edwin to keep in touch with Letty for similar lunches and ensure she doesn’t die of loneliness or hunger, too.

IV. Conclusion

1. Reiterate themes of body paragraph

2. Connect them to the research question.

3. Reiterate research the question in a way that proves you have answered it.

4. Close with thoughts on how to take research further.


There are several ways to structure your essay outline. The one you choose should be the one you feel most comfortable with. You want an essay outline that makes the essay writing process as easy as possible and helps clarify your thoughts.

Finally, as you check your citations, make sure the material you hand in is original. A fast and effective way to do that is by revising it with a plagiarism checker like Quetext. It will catch any accidental plagiarism or plagiarism  plagiarism by proxy, ensuring your essay is all your own thoughts, or at least correctly referenced ideas by other people.