What is an outline?

Thesis and supporting details

How outlining helps in writing an essay

How to create an outline

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Sample Outline

What is an outline?

An outline of an academic essay contains the thesis and brief information about the proof paragraphs.  The proof paragraphs are the paragraphs between the introduction paragraph and the concluding paragraph.  Proof paragraphs contain evidence, also called supporting details, that the thesis is accurate.

An outline  is like a skeleton of the essay.  Outlines for academic essays and research papers that are not reports on research or other specialized report have a very specific organization.  Here is a sample for a 500-word essay.  The number of body paragraphs will vary, generally from two to four, for a 500-word essay.

Thesis and Supporting Details:

Thesis: A one-sentence answer taking a position on the research question or, if assigned a topic and not a question, the thesis is a one-sentence statement taking a position on a controversial aspect of the topic.  The thesis must be a statement, not a question.  The thesis must be a sentence, not a topic.  For more on what a thesis is, see Thesis.

I. One reason why your thesis is accurate.

A.  Supporting detail

B.  Supporting detail

II. Second reason why your thesis is accurate.

A.  Supporting detail

B.  Supporting detail

III.  Third reason why your thesis is accurate.

A. Supporting detail

B. Supporting detail

Concluding paragraph: sums up proof and restates thesis and/or draws an implication from the information presented as to significance depending upon instructions.

For a shorter essay, possibly only two body paragraphs will be needed.  For a longer essay, you may need more proof paragraphs.  See Paragraphs for more information.

Note that the outline begins with the thesis statement.  What you intend to put into the introduction paragraph as background information leading up the thesis is not part of the outline.

Note that I, II, and III represent what will go into the body (proof paragraphs).

Note that the outline does not ordinarily include a reference to the concluding paragraph even though we have listed it above, but all essays must have a concluding paragraph.

See a Sample Outline.  See how there is a proof paragraph for each part of the thesis presented  in the same order.

How outlining helps in writing an essay

There are many ways that an outline can help you in writing your essay. First, it helps to organize your thought or research, if you are writing a research paper,  into a writing plan. It can also help you decide what information should be included and which information is not really needed. Finally, it can also help you manage the large amount of information you need to sort in order to write a well supported paper.

Once you have an outline, you can actually write the essay from the outline.  Just open the file, delete the word Thesis and the paragraph numbering, add background information before the thesis, develop details for each proof paragraph, and write the concluding paragraph.

How to create an outline

An outline must start with a thesis statement: a one-sentence statement (not a question) taking a position answering a research question (if given a research question to answer) or taking a position on a controversial aspect of a topic (if given a topic on which to write a paper).

Sometimes, you know your position and can easily start with a thesis. If you also know your reasons why you are taking that position, you can simply list your reasons (I, II, …).

At other times, you may not be sure and have to do some thinking or research on the issue.   Let’s take the question “Why don’t some Americans vote?” If this is not a research paper, you might have to do some brainstorming before you can come up with a thesis: a one-sentence answer to the question.  If this is a research essay (research paper), you will do some research. Creating a working bibliography (a list of sources) or doing a synthesis activity can be very helpful for gathering ideas.

Whether you are required to do research or not, the first step is determining a thesis statement.   From brainstorming and/or research, you may have identified the several reasons some people don’t vote:

  • Age restrictions
  • Believe that the system is fixed
  • Believe nothing will ever change
  • Don’t know where to go to vote
  • Physically disabled
  • Don’t know where to register
  • Happy with the status quo
  • Too young
  • Believe their vote doesn’t count
  • Can’t vote because of incarceration
  • Don’t know when to vote
  • Not an important part of upbringing/culture
  • Felony conviction
  • Don’t know what identification is needed
  • Illegal status
  • Receiving false information about where to vote

Now, we have to cluster these points into categories so that they can be discussed in an organized way in the essay.  We can see that there are some general reasons such as legal barriers, confusion about how to register or where to vote, and lack of concern or interest where people just don’t think voting would change anything.

I.   Lack of concern or interest

II.  Confusion

III. Legal barriers

Looking over the notes that you made from your brainstorming or research, the next step is to eliminate duplications and group ideas under the categories.  Depending on the assignment length, you don’t necessarily have to include everything you find.

For example:

  • Age restrictions   III
  • Believe that the system is fixed   I
  • Believe nothing will ever change  I
  • Don’t know where to go to vote   II
  • Physically disabled
  • Don’t know where to register    II
  • Happy with the status quo    I
  • Too young
  • Believe their vote doesn’t count   I
  • Can’t vote because of incarceration   III
  • Don’t know when to vote   II
  • Not an important part of upbringing/culture       I
  • Felony conviction III
  • Don’t know what identification is needed   II
  • Illegal status      III
  • Receiving false information about where to vote   II

Now you have a rough outline. You have your three major causes and some details that support each. The next step is to make a solid thesis.

The most important part of your paper is the thesis. A good thesis clearly answers your research question and will provide guidance to the reader about the direction and scope of your paper. Make sure that your thesis is a defensible point that others could reasonably disagree. For this paper a reasonable thesis could be: Three major reasons that Americans do not vote are apathy, confusion, and legal barriers.

Next it is time to think about the body of your essay. Since the thesis very clearly shows the three main points, you can use these along with the grouped details you sorted earlier. As you are making your outline you may discover that you have more ideas than you can fit into your paper’s length or that you have gone beyond the scope of your topic. If so, feel free to remove some ideas. For example, because you have many different types of ideas listed under legal barriers, you may wish to remove the weakest or least supported detail.

Some instructors also require that you include a concluding statement. Remember that this statement should simply be a restatement of your thesis and should never introduce new ideas or begin a new discussion. More information on the organization of an essay can be found here.

This is an acceptable outline to the research questions we’ve developed here:

Your Name

Your Instructor’s Name

Course Title

Day Month Year


Thesis: Three major reasons that Americans do not vote are apathy, confusion, and legal barriers.

I.  Lack of concern or interest

A.  Disbelief in the system

1.  One vote doesn’t matter

2.  Voting is tampered with

B.  Social/culturally not valued

C.  Satisfaction with the status quo

II.  Confusion

A.  Location

1.  Where to register

2.  Where to vote

B.  When to vote

C.  What documents are needed

III.  Legal barriers

A.  Incarceration

B.   Conviction of a felony

C.  Immigration status

Concluding paragraph:  Sum up proof and restate thesis and/or draw an implication from the information presented showing the significance depending upon your instructions.

Note that this outline has three support details for each reason your thesis is right (each proof point – I, II, III).  Sections I, II, and III each represent one body (proof) paragraph.  Each body paragraph in the essay must begin with a topic sentence that is a reason your thesis is accurate.  This may vary from essay to essay.  What is described here is more like a scratch outline or topic outline which gives just the general ideas.  A formal outline would include detailed sentences and subsections. These are called sentence outlines.  In a sentence outline, the sentence next to each I, II, and III must be a topic sentence which clearly expresses what point that shows the thesis is right will be shown in the paragraph.  See Paragraphs and Essay Organization for more details.   See also more information on the writing process.