Essay Outline – Definition & Guide

06.01.23 Structuring academic essays Time to read: 6min

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A properly formatted essay outline can make all of the difference in the world between authoritative research and a poorly written presentation.

This article will highlight some of the most important points to keep in mind while simultaneously providing a handful of useful examples.

Essay Outline — In a Nutshell

Learning how to create a well-written outline is a talent that can be used throughout your life. While the process may seem slightly complicated at first glance, it will become a secondhand skill within no time at all. For this, you may want to follow the 4 steps discussed in this article:

  • Setting the aim
  • Sorting redundancy and too much material
  • Allocating the different messages of each paragraph
  • Orienting on a standard template for essay outlines

Definition: Essay outline

It is first wise to define what an essay outline refers to. Simply stated, this template represents a rough format of how the structure of an academic essay will appear before the bulk of the writing begins. This “skeleton” will also provide you with a foundation from which content can be fleshed out; providing insight and clarity to the reader.

While the exact appearance of an essay outline will vary in terms of length, basic content, and subject matter, it can still be broken down into a handful of key sections.

A generic example:

  • An introduction (such as an abstract, a summary, or a thesis statement).
  • The first topic
  • The second topic
  • The third topic
  • Additional subsections that may be required
  • The Conclusion
  • A page containing any relevant citations

The primary intention of an outline is to provide the writer with a strong foundation from which the ideas themselves can be further developed in a concise manner.

Organizing your material

The usefulness of any essay outline is often determined by how it is organized in terms of both content and structure. This normally occurs during the preliminary brainstorming session when you begin to collate the main facts and points that you hope to emphasize. In other words, try to define a single sentence that expresses what it is that you are trying to convey.1 You can then begin gathering important information.

One useful suggestion is to create different categories for any research notes that are required. This is important, as these notes will often be used as references to support your observations.

Another strategy involves listing the main sections of an essay outline in accordance with the research that has already been gathered. This is an effective way to make certain that citations are placed within the correct sections; helping to avoid lengthy editing concerns.

How to avoid point deductions

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4 steps for writing an essay outline

Now that we have perused some of the basic principles associated with creating an essay outline, where should you begin? Let us answer this question by segmenting it into four key stages.

Set your target

Every journey begins with the first step. In terms of an essay outline, this involves what you are trying to convey to the reader. The target could be associated with defining a specific problem, presenting an argument, or even drawing conclusions based on existing evidence.2 A target will serve as an “anchor” that the remainder of the text is tied into.

Sort out the fluff

One common mistake that can be attributed to university-level essay outlines is the inclusion of entirely too much material. We should remember that brevity is the soul of wit. Furthermore, the chances are high that an instructor will be analyzing dozens of such papers. Verbose presentations may therefore fall upon deaf ears.
Once a rough outline has been completed, take some time to review what it contains:

• Are all subsections necessary?
• Is any information redundant?
• Do you feel that the template is suitable for the required word count?

Attempt to answer these questions as clearly as possible.

Determine the points

Each section should contain clear points that do not overlap with other portions of the essay outline. The finished paper may otherwise appear sloppy and confusing. Check to make certain that no information is repeated and that each segment seamlessly leads into subsequent topics. This is a great way to reinforce the main idea.

Using a standard template

Even with the suggestions mentioned above, it can still be difficult to compile a well-written essay outline. This is why it may be prudent to employ pre-formatted templates that are available online.
These templates will provide you with a bit of much-needed guidance and a number of unique configurations are available. Here are some common examples:3

• University application essays.
• General essay outline checklists.
• Scholarship essay templates.
• Typical assignment outlines.

These are some of the many useful options at your disposal and the majority are free to access.

Essay outline: Example

Let us now move on to present a typical essay outline example based on an entirely fictional topic. Here is how a standard template would appear:


Title: Why German Shepherds are the Best Dogs

Thesis/Introduction: German shepherds are excellent pets for a variety of reasons and they should be seriously considered for companionship.

Heading 1: Excellent with Children

  1. Research-based evidence
  2. A history of human interaction

Heading 2: Great for Security

  1. Facts associated with guard dogs
  2. The beneficial physical aspects of German shepherds

Heading 3: Extremely Intelligent Animals

  1. Studies highlighting their intelligence
  2. Real-world examples



Note that this essay outline is highly simplified. However, it still succinctly illustrates the main points of the paper.


An outline can be envisioned as a “road map” that is intended to provide you with a strong structural foundation before the writing begins. Some professors may even require an outline before a specific topic is approved.

The length of an outline will depend on variables such as the content, what is being discussed, and any stipulations provided by the instructor. Note that it is often possible to shorten or elongate an essay outline during the editing process.

This is another somewhat subjective question. While some teachers may have certain requirements (such as typeface or file type), others could provide you with a considerable degree of latitude. However, formatting will often make the content easier to follow during the creation process. Examples include different font sizes and boldface headings.

In rare cases, an outline might not be warranted. This is sometimes the case when referring to papers that are less than one page in length. However, more in-depth projects should always be associated with a pre-formatted essay outline. This approach will help to avoid confusion while ensuring that the project is written in the correct manner.4

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1 Gillespie, Peter. “Organizing Your Paper.” University of Lynchburg. Accessed December, 2022.

2 Bélanger, Claude. “Guide to Essay Writing and Research.” Marianopolis College. Accessed December, 2022.

3 “9+ Printable College Essay Templates.” Accessed December, 2022.

4 Will, David S. “How to write an essay outline.” TED-IELTS. June 6, 2022.