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How to Write an Outline for an Essay

write an essay outline

The outline is easily the most underrated stage of essay writing, which is a shame. Many students think of an outline as an encumbrance – a surplus step that is better to skip. Why waste time writing an outline, when you can just start writing your essay – that would be faster! However, outlining is a powerful tool that should enable you to write a good, well-structured, impactful essay.

If you don’t appreciate outlining, you must be doing it wrong. Let’s find out how to make outlining work for you!

What is an outline?

The outline is a summary of a paper or public speech. It consists of main points and supporting points in the order they should be presented in the full text.

Outlines can be formal or informal.

Sometimes, your instructors will ask you to write a formal outline to accompany your essay or research paper. This immediately shows any gaps in your reasoning, because lays bare the structure behind any wordy text. If this structure is in any other way deficient, there is no need to read the full text to know that it is also flawed. Therefore, it’s always better to start with developing an outline and then proceed to write the essay – just like your instructor probably recommends anyway.

Usually, a formal outline is very succinct and hierarchically organized. It looks something like this:

  • Title of body paragraph 1 (if it doesn’t have a title, give it a name for your outline)
    • First idea
      • Sub-point 1
        • Sub-point 1’s supporting evidence 1
        • Sub-point 1’s supporting evidence 2
        • Sub-point 1’s supporting evidence 3

And so on – for every paragraph. You may condense any of the points in one or two words for a basic outline or give it a fuller, more detailed description with a topic sentence to write a sentence outline.

Note that if any of your ideas go as deep as to 5th grade of subdivision when presented in the outline, maybe your argument is getting too convoluted. You should split this idea into several separate ones, or rearrange your sub-point levels to make it easier for your readers to follow.

If outlining is not your forte, you can order it from our writing helper and use it as a guide to write your brilliant essay! A good outline can make a difference between getting an A+ and losing your reader’s interest from the very beginning. Need help with outlining?

An informal outline is your own and isn’t meant for anyone else’s eyes. You can revise it, ditch the strict form, add descriptive phrases, details, examples, draw schemes, reorder your points with arrows, etc. It keeps shifting as you develop your ideas and grows until it resembles a summary or even the first rough draft of your essay. This type is the most useful one for you as a writer. Let’s look at it in detail.

How To Write An Essay Outline For College

An informal outline has its own unique functions. It helps you to:

  • - organize your thoughts and see how ideas are related to each other
  • - make sure nothing is forgotten when you will start writing
  • - create a roadmap, so while you are writing your essay you don’t have to think of what to say next, but can focus instead on how to say it the best possible way
  • - arrange the material in a way that will have the greatest impact on the reader

Steps to writing an outline

  • Choose the topic, decide on the focus and scope of your essay
  • Brainstorm the ideas you want to include in it
  • Group related ideas together and arrange them into sub-groups
  • Determine the order in which you will present information to your reader
  • Come up with informative headings and subheadings to express each point

Principles of outlining

  • - Make sure your headings and subheadings are grammatically consistent. For example, the steps to writing an outline above are consistent since they all start with a verb (choose, brainstorm, group, determine, come up)
  • - Make sure your subheadings are of equal importance compared to each other
  • - Your headings should have more general meaning, while each subsequent subheading within them be more and more specific
  • - Divide big chunks of information into sub-points

How To Write An Essay Outline: Example of Arrangement Techniques

The Roman philosopher and famous orator Cicero described Five Canons (tenets) of the powerful speeches and texts. These included:

  • - invention – process developing the argument
  • - arrangement – ordering material in the text for maximum impact on the audience
  • - style – rhetorical technics and eloquence
  • - memory – memory technics to learn your speeches by heart
  • - delivery – gestures, pronunciation, tone of voice

Thought the last two are only relevant for the live presentations, the first three can be applied to any text. Arranging your ideas in the right order is a tool in itself – that’s what outlining is for. You must lead your reader through your argument; otherwise, they may not be convinced or even not interested enough to read through. You must arrange your ideas in a way that will not bore or confuse your audience.

Here are the basic arrangement techniques from classical rhetoric:

  • Vertical: each big idea is a header, each small idea is a subheading or a bullet-point. It’s a standard outline and a sample formal outline you have seen above follows this structure.
  • Columns: one column for all your ideas and definitions, second – for implications of those ideas, third – for your conclusions. This way you can easily arrange your essay into three parts: introduction, body, and conclusion.
  • Circle: start with something familiar to your reader, then present new information, and lead them argument after argument to your main point; from there explain the ramifications of your main point and then tie it up with the familiar thing you departed from.
  • Arch: you start from something familiar again and arrange your ideas according to how exciting or unusual they are, building up exponentially to your main argument (the highest point of the arch), and then you slide down from there further convincing your reader and showing how your main point changes the familiar part from the beginning.

These techniques have one purpose – to give your essay the right rhythm. Which one to use in each particular case is up to you.

However, if all this seems too complicated, we can write an outline for you – and your entire essay for that matter! Our writers have a deep understanding of outlining shapes, rhetorical principles, requirements of academic style, and formatting. What is more important – they love writing and will do everything to make your essay outstanding.

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