How To
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A Guide to Writing an Essay Outline + Examples and Templates

William Ellis
November 20, 2022

What you'll learn

What you'll need

If you need to write an essay but want to know how to write an essay outline to organize your thoughts effectively, then this guide is for you. We will cover the benefits of an essay outline, outline structure, different types of outlines, and how to outline your essay so that it is much easier when you go to write it. Plus, we have some cool templates and examples for you. 

The essay is arguably one of the most popular and efficient means of communicating a large amount of information on a given subject without taking a large amount of time. When you must write an essay, be it for academic or professional reasons, you do not simply start writing. 

That is a rookie mistake. You must have a game plan. 

This is where an outline comes in.

What is an essay outline?

An essay outline is essentially a blueprint for the essay that you intend to write, whether it is an argumentative essay or writing an informative essay. Consider it a prelude to writing your first draft. 

An outline contains all of the basic points of what you intend to write. There are many different ways that one can create an outline, which we will cover, but it must serve the overall structure of the essay. 

Why should you write an outline for an essay?

Some people think that you can simply sit down and start writing and produce an essay ready for a reader's scrutiny. This is a major misconception. Writing an essay without an outline is like trying to travel across the country without a map or GPS. You might get where you want to go, but you will almost certainly make mistakes trying to get there.

Knowing how to write an essay outline gives you the ability to lay all of your thoughts out and map where they will belong in your essay. In a way, your outline is the earliest version of the first draft of your essay. By creating a good outline, it practically guarantees you to create an essay that is well thought out and composed. 

Here are the biggest benefits of creating an outline.


When you create an outline, you are creating a structure that you can hang your essay on. You do not have to try and write in a free-form style and hope that you have conveyed all of the information in the best manner to the reader.

With a proper outline, you can designate where all of the information, main points, and supporting ideas that you have compiled will go in your essay and in what order. This will keep you organized and better able to meet any potential deadline that you may be under.


One of the biggest drawbacks of free-form writing is that it can make for difficult reading when the writing is done. You find that free-form writing can often be redundant, go on tangents, and just not flow well. It adds up to a disjointed reading experience.

When you do an essay outline, you are preventing your work from being difficult to read because you can place each argument in its proper place. This prevents redundancies and incoherencies that may arise when you try to do everything free-form. Outlining beforehand makes your essay flow better for the reader as you transition from each main point.


Creating an outline gives your essay an added element of flexibility. Imagine for a moment that you have completed the first draft of your essay. During the revision process, you discover a new piece of information that drastically changes the information that you want to put in the essay. With an outline at the ready, you can more easily chart your essay’s course while factoring in the new information.

Instead of trying to shoehorn your new information into your revision, you can rework your outline to better accommodate it. This level of flexibility will help you maintain your essay’s coherence.


Arguably, the biggest benefit of using an essay outline is that it makes writing more efficient. By outlining each main idea, topic sentence, and supporting ideas before you start essay writing, you know exactly what needs to be written before you type out your first draft.

With all of your thoughts already laid out in the outline, you can practically transcribe each idea or argument to the page. Since you have gone to the trouble of outlining everything beforehand, you do not have to worry about writing any redundancies into your first draft. This means you will have less editing to do in the long run. Writing an outline helps to streamline the whole process.

Essay outline structure

The entire point of an outline is to have a structure with which to hang the rest of your essay. As such, it only makes sense that your essay outline should have its own structure. Here are the main components of a good outline structure and how they correspond to the final version of your essay.


Your essay introduction should present the primary thesis statement of the essay in a manner that tells the reader what your main argument of the essay will be about. It should not presume that the reader is particularly knowledgeable on the subject at hand, but it should also assume the reader is reasonably intelligent and able to understand the topic.

Body paragraphs

The body paragraphs have a primary function, and that is to support the thesis statement with an argument. Each successive paragraph should further support the thesis statement with a new topic sentence backed up by highlighting additional pieces of evidence.

If you are following a traditional five-paragraph essay format, then there should be three body paragraphs focused on a different topic sentence backed up by supporting points. Think of each body paragraph as its mini-essay that helps to further build the case for the thesis you have presented.


The conclusion is simple in concept. An essay conclusion is where you succinctly reiterate your thesis and the already discussed supporting evidence. You should restate the core information of your body paragraphs without repeating or bringing up any new information.

The main point of the conclusion is not only to reiterate the prior points but to tie all of those points together in support of the thesis. 

Different types of outlines

While your instructor or professor may prefer the outline they want you to use, an essay outline is a guide for you to use that helps the flow and overall structure of your college essay or research paper. 

By creating an outline, you ensure that your essay is cohesive, covers all of the main points you were trying to make, and even that you hit your word count if you have one. That being said, it’s wise to still check with your instructor should you have one, to make sure you truly do have carte blanche on the choice.

Alphanumeric outline

An alphanumeric outline is the most common type of outline used in essays. You'll lay out your essay in lists and organized sub-lists through a mixture of numbers, symbols, periods, and letters. This type of outline helps to get all of your thoughts in a logical order before you begin writing. 

Here is an example essay outline template for  an alphanumeric outline: 

alphanumeric essay outline template example



Full sentence outline

This particular layout has one real requirement: The heading needs to be a complete sentence. You can’t use just one or two words for it. A full sentence that fully explains the section. While it is laid out the same as the alphanumeric version, it is distinctive because of this rule. 

Many writers employ the full sentence outline as a way of keeping their thoughts organized since it allows for proper spacing of ideas, forces you to go through each part of your essay to clarify what you meant, and helps you reach your word count guidelines if you have been struggling to do so.

Here’s an example of the full sentence outline: 

full-sentence essay outline template


Decimal outline

The decimal outline is similar to the alphanumeric outline, and many people have trouble distinguishing between the two. The main difference is that the decimal outline uses only numbers. Where in an alphanumeric outline, you might see letters or symbols, this is not the case with a decimal outline. 

Here is an example template of a decimal outline:

decimal essay outline format


How to outline your essay

Now that you understand the structure of an outline and the different types of outlines that you can do, the time has come to create your outline for your essay. If you want to be sure to do the job right, then you have some steps that you can follow that will make your outline more organized and more helpful.


The research phase of your outline requires that you do more than simply go on Google or Wikipedia to find more information. You can use those resources as a starting point to find reputable information sources, but Wikipedia should never be a source on your essay and they cannot be the be-all-end-all of your research.

You want to be sure that the sources you use are trustworthy and have the proper qualifications, which Wikipedia alone does not (but they do have references near the bottom that you could use). A good example would be that if you are writing an essay about the medical world, you would cite information from a medical journal or a clinical study. 

Determine your main points

When you write an essay, there can often come a point where you can get distracted by tangents, where you can no longer see the forest for the trees. This is why you need to settle on your main points in the essay. 

Your main points should be the aspects of your topic that you find stick out the most. They should be the pieces of information that paint the clearest picture of the topic you wish to highlight.

By sticking with a primary set of points, you prevent yourself from going on tangents that may be related to your thesis, but ultimately do not add much information of value. You do not want to make the mistake of overloading the reader with information that will do little to enhance their opinion of the topic at hand.


One of the problems that comes with trying to write an essay is that sometimes your subject matter can be somewhat unwieldy. Keeping track of all your research materials and your main points can be hectic if you are not staying on top of things. That is why you must keep your outline organized.

Write and revise your outline

Now that you have organized your research materials and main points, you are finally ready to begin writing your outline. This part must be done correctly, as it will strongly affect what the finished essay becomes.

You want to make sure that each point of your essay is made in a way that will allow for the essay to flow when it is written. A common mistake people make with outlining their essays is that they treat it like a slide presentation or a bullet list rather than as a piece of writing. Make sure that your outline takes your writing style into account.

After you have created your outline, you should look over it for anything that could create potential problems. Will it yield an overly long essay? Are there any redundancies? Is all of the information relevant? If you find any element of your outline that is lacking, then you should revise it.

Essay outline examples

It’s always helpful to see examples of outlines for the different types of essays for academic writing, whether it’s an argumentative essay, narrative essay, persuasive essay, or any other academic paper you may need to do. 

Here are some essay outline examples for different essay types.

Persuasive essay outline

5 paragraph persuasive essay example


Expository essay outline

Expository outline template example



Argumentative essay outline

argumentative essay outline template


Informative essay outline

informative essay outline example



Narrative essay outline

narrative essay outline template


FAQs on writing essay outlines

What’s a five-paragraph outline?

A five-paragraph outline is an outline that is designed specifically for an essay that is following a five-paragraph format. It accounts for the introduction, three body paragraphs, and the conclusion.

When should I write an essay outline?

You should start the process of outlining after you have chosen your topic, and you have done the proper research on it. Make sure that you have compiled all of the necessary information into a form that is easily accessible to you. 

Can I change my outline when I begin writing?

There is nothing wrong with changing your outline after the writing process begins. It needs to be understood that while there are guidelines that have helped thousands upon thousands of essays; they are still only guidelines. 

The only rules that you need to heed are the parameters of the essay, as it has been assigned to you. If you need to change your outline to create a better essay, then that is not only something you can do, it is what you should do.

Final thoughts on how to write an essay outline

Through each step of the outlining process, you must remember that your outline is not your essay. Your outline is your guide, your map to creating a fantastic essay, but if you find during the writing process that straying from the outline yields a better essay, then do what is best for the essay. After all, nobody will read your outline, but your essay is what truly matters.

This article is part of an ongoing series on how to write. It covers topics such as how to write an affiliate blog post or how to write a business proposal.

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