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How to Outline an Essay : 5 Tips for Best Structure

There are two ways to begin writing an essay. You can start by putting down anything at all, creating a rough draft and then going back to make your writing cohesive. However, doing this effectively can be difficult, especially if you lack existing knowledge or opinions on the topic you are writing about. An alternative that is encouraged by many professors is to start the writing process by creating an outline.

A good essay outline can help you pinpoint the research you need and makes the writing process more manageable by allowing you to tackle individual sections rather than the essay as a whole. This article gives step-by-step tips on how to create an essay outline that will make it easier to draft a strong and well-structured essay.

scaffolding image
A good essay outline is like a scaffolding that will help you more easily prepare and draft your essay.
Table of Contents
  1. Decide on the format of your outline
  2. Establish a working thesis statement
  3. Write out topic sentences for each body paragraph
  4. Add supporting information for each topic sentence
  5. Stop outlining when you are ready to write

Decide on the format of your outline

The basic structure of an essay is simple: introduction, body, and conclusion. However, there are many different ways to approach an outline. You can see below for a generic template, but you should alter it to best suit the type of essay you are writing. Your instructor may also require you to submit your outline before the essay itself, so you should check whether a specific format is required.

  • Opening sentence (or the “hook”)
  • Working thesis statement
  • Topic sentence
  • Supporting information
  • Summary sentence
  • Concluding points

You can have as many body paragraphs as you need, but you should have at least three. This is because it is difficult — if not impossible — to sufficiently develop your point with fewer.

Establish a working thesis statement

A thesis statement tells readers exactly what you want your essay to argue; it makes the point of the essay clear and lets readers know the exact purpose of the essay. Coming up with one or two sentences that condense your entire essay can seem like an intimidating task, but it is quite simple to do. The first step is to figure out the stance you are taking. For example, if you are writing an essay that requires you to argue for either open or closed source software, then you need to decide which one you want to advocate for. Say that you have decided to go with open source. Now, you have to ask yourself: What are the primary reasons you are going with open source rather than closed source?

This step may require some preliminary research, depending on whether or not you have existing opinions on the topic, but once you have those reasons, just condense them into a couple concise clauses and voila, you have a thesis statement.

Write out topic sentences for each body paragraph

A body paragraph should develop your thesis statement further by providing specific information that supports your main point. Taking the example from above, say that you want to argue for open source over closed source; you now have a thesis statement and a rough list of reasons why open source is better than closed source. Choose several of these reasons and assign each reason to a body paragraph. For this particular example, you could choose these three: (1) the promotion of innovation, (2) the customizability, (3) the (typically) free cost. Now, write out topic sentences for each body paragraph. A topic sentence is to each individual paragraph what the thesis statement is to the entire essay; it condenses the main point of the paragraph. An example of a rudimentary topic sentence could be “Open source software promotes innovation.”

Add supporting information for each topic sentence

Once you have written out the topic sentences, it is time to add the supporting points. Consider the statement “Open source software promotes innovation.” From this alone, it is unclear exactly how open source software promotes innovation. It is also unspecified whether there is quantitative proof that open source software is superior to closed source software in terms of promoting innovation.This topic sentence clearly requires supporting information. In the outlining process, it should be sufficient to add the supporting information in the form of bullet points below the topic sentences.

Stop outlining when you are ready to write

There is no need to write out a “perfect” outline before starting your essay. In the end, an outline is just a tool to help you organize your thoughts and get the writing process started. Therefore, it is best to stop outlining and move onto the actual writing whenever you feel ready to do so. In addition, note that there are certain elements of an essay that typically do not need to be part of an outline. For example, you should not feel pressured to include an opening sentence or “hook” or the concluding summary sentence in an outline. Unless your instructor specifically requires you to add those to your outline, you can simply leave a couple placeholders indicating where those would eventually go.

Editing Your Essay Outline

While writers should not spend too much time worrying about whether the grammar, spelling, and terminology in their outline are “perfect,” it can be helpful to have an extra set of eyes to correct your work. To check your grammar and proofread your work in real time, use the AI Proofreader, a comprehensive grammar checking that also suggests vocabulary and phrasing changes. And when you are finished writing your essay draft, it can be helpful to give it to a professional essay editor to sharpen the readability and impact of your essay.