How To Write An Essay Outline: Tips And Examples

To outline or not to outline: that is the age-old question. For a lot of people, outlines are a way to organize thoughts and gather information before they start writing, which can often save valuable time later on. But some writers prefer to craft essays more loosely, adding material and shaping their supporting paragraphs as they go.

Whether you’re new to outlines (or writing, period) or you’re just looking to hone your skills at crafting the perfect essay outline, there are some important things to know about the process. Follow along as we break down the why and the how of writing an effective outline and provide a step-by-step guide that will make writing your next essay a total cinch.

What is an outline?

An outline is “a general sketch, account, or report, indicating only the main features, as of a book, subject, or project.” In other words, it’s like a brief summary of the topics you plan to cover in a longer piece of writing.

In writing an outline, you create the skeleton of your essay, which provides a supportive structure on which you can arrange and organize each of your paragraphs. This helps you clarify the points you intend to make in your writing and also gives you an opportunity to tailor your research, which can make the writing process much easier later on.

Why are outlines helpful?

If you aren’t typically an outline writer, you might be wondering if you really need to put in the extra work to create one. Ultimately, everyone has a different writing style, and only you know what’s going to work for you, but here are four major reasons why many people find the outlining process helpful:

1. Outlines are brief and concise.

Remember: an outline is not the same thing as a rough draft. In an outline, each section contains only a sentence or two, and each topic is distilled to a single main idea.

2. Outlines help you write more efficiently.

You don’t have to worry about rambling or repeating the same statistic several times. You decide exactly where information belongs before you start writing.

3. Outlines are easy to edit.

You can move facts, details, and even entire sentences around easily without needing to rewrite whole paragraphs.

4. Outlines ensure supporting details connect to the thesis.

Once you see all of your work laid out, you might realize that certain paragraphs can be combined or that your conclusion doesn’t actually tie back to your thesis. Isn’t it nice to notice these potential errors before you’ve finished a draft?

Writer’s block? It’s part of the process. Here are some tips to overcome it and get your words flowing again.

The parts of a standard essay outline

Now that you understand the “why” behind writing an essay outline, let’s talk about how to do it. Here are the main parts to include in any essay outline:


In an outline, your introduction consists of your thesis statement. This is a single sentence that states the subject, main idea, or main purpose of your essay.

When you write your essay, you will add a few sentences before and after your thesis statement to grab your reader’s interest and preview your essay’s main points. For the outline, you only need to narrow your point of view to a single, effective thesis that will inform the rest of the outline.

Body paragraphs

Body paragraphs are the parts of the essay in which you present information to back up your thesis. First, you’ll need to decide if you’re writing a three-paragraph essay or a five-paragraph essay. You may have anywhere from one to three body paragraphs, depending on what type you choose.

Each body paragraph in your outline should have:

  • A main idea that aligns with your thesis.
  • A topic sentence stating the main idea.
  • A bulleted list of relevant research, quotes, anecdotes, and/or statistics.


Much like the introduction, your outline’s conclusion is all about your thesis statement. Here, you should:

  • Restate your thesis
  • Summarize the main points that support your thesis.
  • Leave your reader with an impactful final thought or call to action.

Example of a standard essay outline

Now that you know the parts of an essay outline, it might help to see them in action. Here’s an outline format you can use to plan your own essays, filled in with examples of a thesis statement, topic sentences for your body paragraphs, and the main parts of a strong conclusion.


  • Thesis statement: There’s a lot of debate about which food category hot dogs fit into, but it’s clear from the evidence that a hot dog is a type of sandwich.

Body paragraph #1

  • Topic sentence: To begin, hot dogs fit the dictionary definition of the word sandwich.
  • Supporting detail: Sandwich is defined as “two or more slices of bread with a layer of meat, fish, cheese, and whatever other filling you’d like between them.”
  • Supporting detail: A hot dog is a grilled or steamed sausage, usually made of pork or beef, which qualifies as a layer of meat.
  • Supporting detail: Hot dog buns are split rolls, similar to the ones used for deli sandwiches.

Body paragraph #2

  • Topic sentence: Secondly, hot dogs meet the legal definition of sandwiches in many places.
  • Supporting detail: Mark Wheeler, a food safety specialist with the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), says the organization defines a sandwich as “a meat or poultry filling between two slices of bread, a bun, or a biscuit.”
  • Supporting detail: In New York state, tax law lists “hot dogs and sausages on buns” as types of sandwiches.
  • Supporting detail: Additionally, tax law in California clearly includes “hot dog and hamburger sandwiches” served from “sandwich stands or booths.”

Body paragraph #3

  • Topic sentence: Finally, most Americans agree that hot dogs are sandwiches.
  • Supporting detail: In a poll of 1,000 people conducted by RTA Outdoor Living, 56.8% of respondents agreed a hot dog is a sandwich.
  • Supporting detail: Many fast food chains that serve primarily burgers and sandwiches, like Five Guys burgers and Shake Shack, also sell hot dogs.
  • Supporting detail: Lexicographers at have also declared that hot dogs officially meet the criteria to be included in the sandwich category. (Curious? Read the article here for this and other great food debates explained.)


  • Restatement of thesis: Hot dogs are a unique kind of food, but the evidence makes it clear that they are indeed a type of sandwich.

Now, get to planning that perfect essay! (But if you’re hungry for a snack first, we don’t blame you.)

Plan and write a five-paragraph essay that will earn your instructor's own five—high five, that is!

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