(Plus 4 Helpful Bonus Tips)

Written By: Claire Brown

What is an essay outline?

An essay outline is a form of prewriting used by authors, students, teachers, and writers of all levels. It provides an easy way to organize and structure an essay before actually writing the full paper. There are two main types of outlines that we’ll break down below: the sentence outline and the topic outline.

Sentence Outline vs. Topic Outline

The defining difference between sentence outlines and topic outlines is sentence structure (or lack thereof). Apart from this, both outlines are nearly identical, follow the same basic pattern, and are used for the same purpose. 

As the name implies, sentence outlines use complete sentences, proper grammar, and proper punctuation. Though they are longer and often take more work up front, they can make the actual paper-writing process a breeze. However, because they utilize full sentences, it can sometimes be tricky to find the right transitions between the sentences and may make forming cohesive paragraphs difficult.

Topic outlines, on the other hand, do not use complete sentences, proper grammar, or any punctuation. These outlines are quicker and require less work up front. The transition to a full-fledged paper is not always as easy as it is with sentence outlines since you have to translate incomplete phrases into full sentences. Topic outlines are the most popular type of outline – this is the one I will be using for examples throughout the post.

Why Are Outlines Important?

If you’ve come here to learn how to write an outline, you may be asking yourself, “What’s the point in outlining? It seems like a waste of time.” This couldn’t be further from the truth! 

Get Your Thoughts Out

In my blog post on the benefits of taking notes by hand, I discussed the idea of “working memory” which is a temporary bank that your mind draws from as you are thinking in the moment. The thing is, this memory bank has a very, very limited capacity. Sometimes, even as thoughts are forming, they’re slipping out of your memory bank, never to be remembered again.

With an outline – especially a topic outline – you’re free to focus on just your thoughts. You don’t have to worry about whether you chose the right transition word or whether you’re supposed to put a comma there or not. Because it doesn’t matter. All that matters is getting your ideas down on paper. That’s it!

Organize Your Paper

Outlines, while free in their sentence structure and grammar rules, are very organized tools. There is a correct way to create an outline, a pattern, a shape that is universal. But don’t let that scare you! Once you write your outline, your paper will begin to form before your eyes. By its very nature, the outline organizes your paper for you, again freeing you to focus on the content of your writing and only the content of your writing.

Write Your Essay…Before You Write Your Essay

This is the best part about outlining: if you do it correctly, it will write your paper for you. Even though it does require a good bit of work up front, it will save you quite the headache down the road. You’ll be amazed at how much time you save, how many ideas you remember to write down, and how high-quality your essay ends up being. 

Outlining is work, but it is worthwhile work.

The 6 Steps to Making an Essay Outline

1. Add a Header 

Every good outline starts with a header. What your header looks like will vary depending on what type of paper you’re writing and who you’re writing it for. If your outline is for your benefit only, your header will likely be more sparse. However, if you’re submitting your outline (for class, work, or whatever else), you will likely include more information.

I typically recommend including at least a working title for your paper (this can always be revised!), your name, and the date.

This is a screenshot of a word processor page with a header comprised of a name, date, and title which reads "The Benefits of Exercise."

2. Create a Roman Numeral Numbered List

Next, you need to create a Roman Numeral numbered list. Most word processors have this option in the menu bar. Each Roman Numeral corresponds to a different paragraph of your paper, and you will be writing the main idea of each paragraph next to each different Roman Numeral. 

To add in more details, simply press the”enter” key. You will automatically see the next sequential Roman Numeral. To add a sub-point, press the “tab” key once. You will continue in this way, adding paragraph ideas, sub-points, and sub-sub-points. Anytime you need to add another numeral or letter, hit the enter key. To change the indentation, press “tab” to increase the indent and “shift+tab” to decrease the indent.

This image is a screenshot of a word processor page, hovering over the "numbered list" menu at the top of the processor.

3. Write Your Thesis

Now that you have a Roman Numeral list started, label I as “Introduction.”Press the enter key and then the tab key to indent once. Your only sub-point under the introduction should be your thesis statement. 

A thesis statement is the overall theme of a paper. Everything else in the outline should be focused on this one point. A good example of a thesis is something broad, like “Exercising is beneficial for both the mind and the body.” This is one of only two complete sentences you will write in your outline since we’re using a topic outline format.

At this point, you’re not focused on justifying your thesis yet, so don’t worry about including any details. Keep it limited to one broad sentence.

This is a screenshot of a word processor showing the first roman numeral of an outline, labeled "Introduction," with a thesis statement reading: Exercising is beneficial for both the mind and the body."

4. Create 3-5 Main Supporting Statements

You’re now ready to think of supporting statements that support and justify your thesis. A good rule of thumb is to include 3-5 main supporting statements, but you may need to add more depending on the purpose of your paper.

Each main supporting statement will be a new Roman Numeral. When you’re done adding your supporting statements, you should have at least four Roman Numerals – one for the introduction and at least three for the main supporting statements. 

For the thesis example given above, your supporting statements may be: II. Helps to maintain a healthy weight; III. Reduces stress; IV. Releases “feel good” hormones.

Remember, since we’re writing a topic outline, these are not complete sentences.

This is a screenshot of a word processor showing a 4-point roman numeral list with the titles "Introduction," "Helps to maintain a healthy weight," "Reduces stress," and "Releases 'feel good' hormones."

5. Restate Your Thesis

Your last Roman Numeral will be labeled “Conclusion.” Just like you did for the introduction, you are going to press the enter key and then the tab key to indent once. Your only sub-point under the conclusion will be a restatement of your thesis. 

For example, the above thesis could be restated to say “Not only does exercise benefit one physically, it also benefits one mentally as well.” This is the second of only two complete sentences that you will write.

This is a screenshot of a word processor showing a five-point roman numeral list with the titles "Introduction," "Helps to maintain a healthy weight," "Reduces stress," "Releases 'feel good' hormones," and "Conclusion." Under "Conclusion," the thesis has been restated as "Not only does exercise benefit one physically, it also benefits one mentally as well."

6. Fill in Your Outline

It’s finally time to fill in all of the details! Using the enter key, the tab key, and shift+tab, you will go through your outline and add in sub-points and sub-sub-points to support and each supporting detail. This is where you will fully develop your ideas for your paper and where the paper starts to write itself. Since you’re writing a topic outline, don’t worry about sentence structure, grammar, spelling, or punctuation. Just work to get your thoughts down on paper.

And remember: everything that you include should serve to support your thesis. If it doesn’t support it in some way, shape, or form, don’t include it! 

This is a screenshot of a word processor showing how one should fill in a five-point roman numeral outline with subpoints and sub-subpoints.

Four Bonus Tips

1. Cite as You Go

I highly recommend keeping a running list of citations as you are outlining. This is especially important if you are outlining a particularly long or heavily-researched paper. Keeping track of citations as you go will help ensure that you don’t forget what information came from which source, and it will save you a giant headache when you begin to write your paper.

At the very least, you should keep some sort of running numbered list of your sources and write the corresponding numbers next to the ideas in your outline. But I recommend making a full references sheet and using proper in-text citations as you’re working. Then, when it comes time to write your paper, you can just copy and paste the citations as you’re going.

2. Be Consistent

When filling in your outline, try to keep a consistent or nearly consistent number of sub-points and sub-sub-points. Since each Roman Numeral is a separate paragraph, the information you fill in below each Roman Numeral is the actual “body text” of your paper.

Keeping a consistent number of sub-points and sub-sub-points helps ensure that your paragraphs are all similar in length which means you’ll avoid having one paragraph that is significantly shorter or longer than the others.

3. Be Thorough

Sure, making an outline is technically “prewriting” step. But the more details you add now, the less you have to add later. I find it helpful to think of my outlines as less of a prewriting and more of a very rough rough draft. Focus on getting all of your ideas down, and let the fine-tuning come later.

4. Revise, revise, revise!

With that being said, you should revise your outline at least once. I know that probably sounds crazy, but just think of it as one less revision you have to do once you actually write your fully flushed out paper. 

At the very least, it’s a good idea to go back through your finished outline to make sure that all of the information supports the thesis in some way, that you didn’t repeat any ideas (except where needed to provide emphasis or additional support), that your outline is balanced, and that your citations are all in place.

And with that, your outline is complete. Now get out there and start writing!

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