Creating Essay Outlines: The Framework That Guides Your Essay Assignment

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An essay outline allows you to make a plan, a path to writing a focused, on-topic and cohesive essay. Writing an outline for essay assignments of any type helps you control the flow of information in a logical way. An outline accomplishes several things with respect to your writing:

  • Shows hierarchical relationships or the logical order of information
  • Helps you keep ideas and concepts organized
  • Identifies relationships between ideas
  • Creates boundaries and groupings

To write an effective outline for essay assignments, follow the process for creating the essay outline; ensure the necessary elements of a good outline are present, and choose the right type of outline for your essay topic and essay organization format.

Process for creating essay outlines

To create an effective outline that helps guide your writing, use the following steps:

  • Decide the purpose of your essay
  • Identify the audience to which your essay speaks
  • Develop a strong thesis statement for your essay assignment

Once those initial steps are complete, take the steps below to flush out the specifics to include in your essay outline. If you did any prewriting in discovering your topic, utilize or build off those notes.

  • Brainstorm or free write to generate a list of ideas you want to include.
  • Get organized by grouping together any related ideas.
  • Create order by arranging ideas into sections that start general and get more specific or that start with the abstract ideas and finish with the concrete ones.
  • Develop labels for main headings and the subheadings.

Three main types of essay outlines

Ultimately, outlines show the order of information, the importance of each and the relationships between various areas of your essay assignment. There are three main types of outlines:

  • Number essay outline—In a number essay outline, the information is listed in a brief word or phrase format and subdivided and layered using the following descending presentation:
    • Roman Numerals
    • Capitalized Letters
    • Arabic numerals
    • Lowercase letters
  • Sentence outline—A sentence outline follows the same structure as the number essay outline, but full sentences are used for each item in the outline instead of a word or phrase.
  • Decimal outline—A decimal outline is similar to the number outline that uses numerals and letters; however, it uses numbers only with each layer of the outline under a main heading having an extended decimal point to show its relationship to the overall topic.

Elements of an effective essay outline

When creating an outline, you must follow four basic elements to ensure your outline is effective and formatted properly. Without these elements, your paper is not as strong.

  • Parallel structure – Every heading and subheading must take the same form. This means if the main heading starts with a verb, subsequent headings must also start with a verb. The same is true regardless of the part of speech.
  • Equal significance—Each heading at the same level must have equal significant, or weight, within the context of your paper. If a heading has less weight than the one above or below it, consider making it a subheading under another heading.
  • Staggered level of specifics—As you get into deeper layers in an outline, the information needs to get more specific. Your main heading is more general than the headings underneath them.
  • Division of at least two—Each level of headings must have at least two parts. For example, if you have an A, you must have a B, or if you have a 1, you must have a 2. You are not limited in the number of parts for any heading, but if you are a high number of some level of subheadings, consider adding another layer to your outline.

The purpose of creating an outline before you write is to make the entire writing process easier. It gives you an opportunity to organize your thoughts or your notes from prewriting exercises into a cohesive form. Unless an instructor requires you to provide an outline, outlines are not mandatory, but you are doing yourself a favor by creating one.