Essay Outline Ideas

Aiming for the big ‘A’ on that next essay? Well guess what—winging it without an essay outline is just not an option!

By now, you’ve probably made plans in one form or another. You’ve marked quizzes and paper due dates on a calendar. Maybe you’ve put together a surprise birthday party for your friend. Thinking about setting a wedding date with your significant other? Now you’re really talking about planning.

But why do we plan? What makes us set a schedule for a series of events ahead of time? In this post, I’ll answer these questions and focus on why outlining your papers is a vital part of the writing process.

Then you’ll get the chance to access some awesome essay outline templates to help you start writing a well-planned and strongly organized paper that wows your professor.

Planning Saves Lives … or Grades

Okay, so your freshman analysis paper on gender roles in 50 Shades of Grey may not win a Pulitzer or change anybody’s life. But if you don’t outline your paper, you’re probably heading for a crash.

Speaking of crashes, think about something you probably do on a daily basis, driving—or riding in—a car. A lot of planning went into that machine to make it work and get you safely from point A to point B.

If the engineers hadn’t carefully blueprinted all the working parts and how they fit together, then that car wouldn’t run at all. Essays are similar. An unplanned essay that isn’t outlined usually won’t pass your professor’s inspection and just gets you nowhere.

An essay outline denotes how you’ll structure your paper. You can (and should!) make changes along the way. But you want to get everything written down so that you can refer to the outline while you’re writing your rough draft.

If you start out with a good idea of how your paper will function and transition between ideas and paragraphs, then you’ll stay on track and avoid writing yourself into a corner.

Beware the corners—this is what happens when you get to a point in your paper and feel like you have run out of ideas or have no place else to go. Don’t let this happen to you—plan ahead!

Got It–But How Do I Start?

Good time management skills definitely don’t hurt. But just like your paper won’t write itself, your essay is going nowhere if you don’t sit down and start working on that outline.

But maybe it’s been awhile since you’ve composed an outline, and some forms are better than others. No worries—instead of starting from scratch, we’ve got you covered with these templates. You just have to fill in the blanks and keep moving forward!

That said, it’s a good idea to think about the process behind writing a paper before moving forward with your outline. Most papers—like most cars—have the same basic working parts.

You usually need a thesis statement in your introductory paragraph, body paragraphs that follow a logical order and support that thesis, and a conclusion that wraps it all up.

And though most essay have those same working parts, there are different types of essays. Each one requires a different approach to outlining. So without further ado …

7 Super-Awesome Essay Outline Templates

1. Analytical essay outline

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This outline template can help you pick apart a topic and support your thesis so well that your professor’s jaw will drop. An analytical essay isn’t a summary—it requires you to concentrate on how a book or poem was written, why a song was composed, what themes are prevalent in a movie, and why that matters.

You come up with an answer and then explain why you’re right. This template covers the basics and narrows the focus, so you can write a killer thesis statement and use strong evidence to support your claim.

2. Argumentative essay outline

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Nearly all college students will write an argumentative essay, so steel yourself and get ready to create a powerful outline. In this type of essay, you’ll try to persuade your readers that your thoughts on a given topic are the right ones.

But unlike a persuasive essay, you’ll have to do some solid research and back up your ideas with hard facts. This is a great template to guide you through writing your intro, developing your argument, refuting your opponent’s arguments, and bringing your essay over the finish line with the conclusion.

In an argument essay, you must consider the opposing side(s). This handy template will also show you how to tackle the best of them.

3. Compare and contrast essay outline

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A compare and contrast essay takes two subjects and focuses on their similarities and differences. Sounds easy, right? Wait—there’s more!

Like all good essays, this one also serves a larger purpose—maybe you’re trying to state something unknown, clear up a misunderstanding, or show that one topic is better than another.

This template can help you reach these goals using the point-by-point comparison method. Check it out.

4. Expository essay outline

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Do you like helpful advice? Me too. That’s what you get with this awesome expository essay template. An expository essay is kind of like a book report. Your teacher makes you write one of these to show that you’ve aptly researched a topic.

Though there are many ways to organize this type of essay, start with this outline, and you’ll be in good shape. It will help you explain your topic using facts, evidence, and analysis—all of which will help you showcase the larger significance at hand.

5. Persuasive essay outline

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Prove it to me. A persuasive essay’s goal is to convince your readers that your viewpoint is the right one. It’s kind of like an argument essay, except that you don’t have to use well-researched facts in order to support your thesis. You can focus on emotional anecdotes and stories to convince your reader that you’re 100% correct.

This is a great outline template that really delivers from intro to conclusion. Need to define your audience and lay down your best hook? Look no further than this stellar template.

6. Reflective essay outline

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In a reflective essay, you get to recall an event, object, or person that helped you become who you are today. This is a fun essay to write because all the material for it exists in your own head. You don’t have to research or argue. You simply offer the reader a meaningful glimpse into your life.

These essays don’t have to be serious—just ask David Sedaris—but there are good and bad ways to write them. Never fear—this template is here to guide you in setting up your hook, descriptive body paragraphs, and an impactful conclusion.

7. Research essay outline

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Research essays are beastly—they’re longer than most papers to start. They also typically require more effort because you’re gathering sources and revealing what experts are saying about your topic. But this type of essay is cool because it helps you sharpen both your writing skills and knowledge about a topic.

So learn something, and slay that research essay beast by starting with the best weapon. This template will help you put a framework to your ideas—covering the thesis, context, and history behind your topic, the existing arguments, and why the topic/research matters.

From Outline to Essay

Outlining your essay before you begin writing it has so many advantages. It’s easier to change and reorganize a few points on a page than doing the same for large paragraphs in a rough draft.

Outlines save you time and provide peace of mind when it comes to writing papers. Even when you’re putting words to the page, you can always refer back to an outline to keep you on the right track and avoid getting stuck in one of those scary corners we talked about.

Want to win the essay-writing race? Then make a habit of outlining your essays from now on.

Some Inspiration

Sometimes it just helps to see how others have tackled essays in the past. Check out some of these great example essays from the Kibin database to inspire your next trip down essay-writing lane.

Now you’re ready to rev your outline-writing engine. Kick your typing into gear, and drive that paper from point A to point B with a well-organized structure that’ll show your professor you know what’s what.

And don’t forget—your Kibin pit crew is standing by to proofread that next paper to make sure it runs like a dream when you’re ready to turn it in.

Psst... 98% of Kibin users report better grades! Get inspiration from over 500,000 example essays.

Trying to devise a structure for your essay can be one of the most difficult parts of the writing process. Making a detailed outline before you begin writing is a good way to make sure your ideas come across in a clear and logical order. A good outline will also save you time in the revision process, reducing the possibility that your ideas will need to be rearranged once you've written them.

The First Steps

Before you can begin outlining, you need to have a sense of what you will argue in the essay. From your analysis and close readings of primary and/or secondary sources you should have notes, ideas, and possible quotes to cite as evidence. Let's say you are writing about the 1999 Republican Primary and you want to prove that each candidate's financial resources were the most important element in the race. At this point, your notes probably lack much coherent order. Most likely, your ideas are still in the order in which they occurred to you; your notes and possible quotes probably still adhere to the chronology of the sources you've examined. Your goal is to rearrange your ideas, notes, and quotes—the raw material of your essay—into an order that best supports your argument, not the arguments you've read in other people's works. To do this, you have to group your notes into categories and then arrange these categories in a logical order.

Generalizing

The first step is to look over each individual piece of information that you've written and assign it to a general category. Ask yourself, "If I were to file this in a database, what would I file it under?" If, using the example of the Republican Primary, you wrote down an observation about John McCain's views on health care, you might list it under the general category of  "Health care policy." As you go through your notes, try to reuse categories whenever possible. Your goal is to reduce your notes to no more than a page of category listings.

Now examine your category headings. Do any seem repetitive? Do any go together? "McCain's expenditure on ads" and "Bush's expenditure on ads," while not exactly repetitive, could easily combine into a more general category like "Candidates' expenditures on ads." Also, keep an eye out for categories that no longer seem to relate to your argument. Individual pieces of information that at first seemed important can begin to appear irrelevant when grouped into a general category.

Now it's time to generalize again. Examine all your categories and look for common themes. Go through each category and ask yourself, "If I were to place this piece of information in a file cabinet, what would I label that cabinet?" Again, try to reuse labels as often as possible: "Health Care," "Foreign Policy," and "Immigration" can all be contained under "Policy Initiatives." Make these larger categories as general as possible so that there are no more than three or four for a 7-10 page paper.

Ordering

With your notes grouped into generalized categories, the process of ordering them should be easier. To begin, look at your most general categories. With your thesis in mind, try to find a way that the labels might be arranged in a sentence or two that supports your argument. Let's say your thesis is that financial resources played the most important role in the 1999 Republican Primary. Your four most general categories are "Policy Initiatives," "Financial Resources," "Voters' Concerns," and "Voters' Loyalty." You might come up with the following sentence: ÒAlthough McCain's policy initiatives were closest to the voters' concerns, Bush's financial resources won the voters' loyalty.Ó This sentence should reveal the order of your most general categories. You will begin with an examination of McCain's and Bush's views on important issues and compare them to the voters' top concerns. Then you'll look at both candidates' financial resources and show how Bush could win voters' loyalty through effective use of his resources, despite his less popular policy ideas.

With your most general categories in order, you now must order the smaller categories. To do so, arrange each smaller category into a sentence or two that will support the more general sentence you've just devised. Under the category of "Financial Resources," for instance, you might have the smaller categories of "Ad Expenditure," "Campaign Contributions" and "Fundraising." A sentence that supports your general argument might read: "Bush's early emphasis on fundraising led to greater campaign contributions, allowing him to have a greater ad expenditure than McCain."

The final step of the outlining process is to repeat this procedure on the smallest level, with the original notes that you took for your essay. To order what probably was an unwieldy and disorganized set of information at the beginning of this process, you need now only think of a sentence or two to support your general argument. Under the category "Fundraising," for example, you might have quotes about each candidate's estimation of its importance, statistics about the amount of time each candidate spent fundraising, and an idea about how the importance of fundraising never can be overestimated. Sentences to support your general argument might read: "No candidate has ever raised too much money [your idea]. While both McCain and Bush acknowledged the importance of fundraising [your quotes], the numbers clearly point to Bush as the superior fundraiser [your statistics]." The arrangement of your ideas, quotes, and statistics now should come naturally.

Putting It All Together

With these sentences, you have essentially constructed an outline for your essay. The most general ideas, which you organized in your first sentence, constitute the essay's sections. They follow the order in which you placed them in your sentence. The order of the smaller categories within each larger category (determined by your secondary sentences) indicates the order of the paragraphs within each section. Finally, your last set of sentences about your specific notes should show the order of the sentences within each paragraph. An outline for the essay about the 1999 Republican Primary (showing only the sections worked out here) would look something like this:

I. POLICY INITIATIVES

II.  VOTERS' CONCERNS

III.  FINANCIAL RESOURCES

            A.  Fundraising

                        a.  Original Idea

                        b.  McCain Quote/Bush Quote

                        c.  McCain Statistics/Bush Statistics

            B.  Campaign Contributions

            C.  Ad Expenditure

IV.  VOTERS' LOYALTY

Copyright 2000, David Kornhaber, for the Writing Center at Harvard University

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