How to format or Structure an Essay for Top Grades

Last Updated: 19 July 2024

An essay outline is a framework for presenting the main and supporting ideas based on a given topic or subject. It is an important tool writers use to organize and keep track of all the points and topics to be included in an essay.

When you understand how to make an outline for an essay, you are at a great advantage because you can always kickstart your writing process without delays or procrastination.

Even though an outline is essential, many students need help understanding the correct outline format or steps they can take to do outlines, even if they are just rough ones.

Some professors are very organized and meticulous. Apart from asking you to develop an essay topic and write an annotated bibliography, they will insist on seeing an outline for your essay before giving you the go-ahead.

Whether it is a stand-alone assignment or part of an assignment series, you need to understand how to do an outline, the best outline format, and the steps to take to have the best outline for your essay.

This detailed guide covers everything about essay outlines, including appropriate formats and examples, so it becomes easy to do, even when it is just for your own consumption when doing essay assignments.

What is an Outline, and Why Have One for Your Essay?

An outline is a great writing tool that helps you list the main ideas and supporting details logically to predict the contents of the final draft. Skilled essay writers use outlines to prioritize and organize ideas, streamlining the writing process.

Think of the outline as a roadmap, plan, scaffold, or blueprint that you follow to put the building blocks of an essay (words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs). An outline offers a roadmap for the entire essay so you know what falls where and in what order.

With it, you develop ideas and arguments, which ensures clarity, conciseness, consistency, completeness, and correctness in your written piece. Besides, an outline also lays out the structure of the essay or paper, making it easier to develop your first draft in record time.

Ideally, when writing the first draft, if you have an outline, you fill it with the right content using the outline as a writing guide.

You are guaranteed a persuasive piece with no errors because you can map out all the arguments in your essay and provide the best evidence and supporting details.

Assuming you have outlined the thesis statement, topic sentences (main ideas), and supporting facts, you can put everything into its rightful place without wasting time.

With a detailed and thoroughly done outline, you can focus on factors such as subject-verb agreement, formulating short and long sentences, sentence structures, introducing transition words, and other factors without distractions by the big picture.

Outlines also help you to track your prior research. As such, it helps to organize research by including citations of the resources with the best evidence you can use to support ideas.

Therefore, you need an essay outline to (1) organize ideas, (2) streamline your writing process, (3) envision the final draft, (3) keep track of your writing, and (4) brainstorm ideas and transition into writing.

Steps for Creating a Great Essay Outline

You can only do so much when you understand where you are going and what path gets you there. The writing process can be daunting and stressful without a strong outline. It is the sole reason every writer will start brainstorming using an outline that sketches ideas and then refine them through research.

You must be meticulous in crafting an excellent essay outline on the first or subsequent attempts, whether it is to be assessed or not. Most of our pro essay writers who develop outlines find it easy to write essays fast without worrying about the end product (since it is well-envisioned in the outline).

Even though making an outline is tedious on the first attempt, it is a step-by-step process that becomes easier once you master everything.

Our professional essay writers have tried and tested everything, and here are the five steps for creating an essay outline that makes your writing process a success.

Step 1: Determine the Purpose of your Essay

For you to reach the point of making an essay outline, you have already chosen the topic and come up with a thesis for your essay. One would also assume that you have done preliminary research and brainstormed ideas you want to include in your essay.

Therefore, you need to understand the purpose of your essay. You can do this by analyzing the essay prompt or reading the instructions. With a clear purpose, you can determine what is appropriate to include in the essay based on the topic, the main argument, and the goal. You can ask yourself:

Having answers to these questions can help you frame the best response to the essay question that addresses the topic or subject in question.

Note: If you are starting to build an outline from scratch, select the best essay topic and develop an essay thesis before creating the outline.

Step 2: List the Main Ideas

Even though you might have brainstormed as you came up with the topic, you must do it again. As part of the writing process, brainstorming has no limits – you can do it at any stage.

The main goal is to develop a list of ideas you feel worthy to present in the essay. Focus on generating as many ideas as possible, focusing on those that answer the question or prompt.

As you brainstorm the ideas, take notes and try to make connections between the ideas. At this point, every idea matters – don’t shy from listing any random thoughts that come to your mind.

In the end, have a rough list of ideas that can help you meet the objective of your essay.

Step 3: Research and Prioritize Ideas

Now that you have developed potential main ideas, it is time to rearrange everything, prioritizing and organizing them in a format that allows you to meet all the requirements.

In this step, you must research each idea and assess its weight. Prioritize the ideas that have more weight in supporting your thesis so that you have a strong essay with solid points. The criteria here might differ depending on the type of essay you are writing. You can choose the cause and effect, persuasive, argumentative, expository, chronological, process, definitive, or classification, among other formats. If you are writing an argumentative essay, check whether you will use the Toulmin, Aristotelian, or Rogerian formats. You can also use block or point-by-point methods for the classification essays.

Ensure that every point has adequate supporting details, which include facts, evidence, and examples from scholarly sources. You can use headings and subheadings in your outline to organize the ideas and make it easier to fill in the details without getting confused.

Step 4: Choose an Outline format

Now that you have everything in place, given that you have handled steps 1-3, you must select an appropriate essay format.

You can use the alphanumeric, decimal, or full-sentence outline.

In the alphanumeric outline format, you use Roman numerals, capital letters, Arabic numbers, and lowercase letters to number the list levels. The decimal format entails numbering the structural paragraphs using decimals, e.g., 1.1., 1.2., 1.2.1, etc.

Finally, the full-sentence format only uses decimal or alphanumeric formats because the paragraphs are complete sentences.

If you are not limited to a given choice, use the full-sentence outline format because it gives you a clear picture of the essay's points, ideas, and arguments. It is the hallmark of a good presentation.

Format your outline well, including the relevant in-text citations and a reference list at the end.

Step 5: Review and Adjust

A major mistake most people make is to think that by formatting their outline, they are done with the essay planning process. However, writing is a repetitive process requiring constant review and adjustments.

The outline has to undergo constant tweaks to make it a better roadmap for the essay. As such, the final step for making an outline for your essay should be to refine it.

Review your outline, taking note of the main points and supporting ideas. Check whether every topic sentence is a mini-thesis statement, i.e., related to the thesis. Ensure a good connection between the main points in each paragraph.

If there are points that do not make sense, remove and replace them accordingly. Check for redundant and repetitive sections and adjust.


Although outlining an essay seems to be a longer process, it is the unavoidable best practice that sets only a few ahead in terms of grades. Having even a sketch for an outline, provided it lists and organizes ideas, is enough to serve as a roadmap that can lead to higher grades. The hard work in the writing process ends when you have a good outline because it makes you write a first draft faster and more accurately.

Essay Outline Structure/ Format

A typical essay has three parts: introduction, body paragraphs, and conclusion. This classic essay structure provides insights that you can use to scaffold your essay to the last letter. Here is an overview of what each section entails:

1. Introduction Paragraph

After the title of your essay, the introduction also makes the first impression, either luring readers or constantly scaring them away. It is the window into your thoughts and should lead the readers into your thought process. Component-wise, the typical essay introduction comprises three main sections:

Related Reading: Parts of the introduction paragraph.

2. Body Paragraphs

After you have introduced your argument in the introduction, you use a series of body paragraphs to support or expand your argument. A typical short essay can have one, two, or three body paragraphs. However, longer essays tend to comprise several paragraphs depending on the topic's complexity and the essay’s scope. Despite several paragraphs, the focus is on supporting the essay’s thesis.

You can use different types of paragraphs to defend your thesis. The number of paragraphs you will have in an essay depends on many other factors, such as the word count, scope of your paper, types of arguments, etc.

Each of the body paragraphs comprises:

When formulating the body paragraphs, there are different formats to follow, including the MEAL plan format, PEEL or TEEL Format, etc.

3. Concluding Paragraph

The concluding paragraph of an essay restates the thesis, provides an overview or synthesis of the arguments, opens up room for new questions, addresses any limitations, and presents your call-to-action or recommendation.

The conclusion should give your readers closure, ending the information loop. A solid conclusion can turn around the mood of your readers, in this case, the professor. To do this, avoid introducing any new ideas.

Related Read:

Essay Outline Template

Below is a five-paragraph essay outline template to help you see how you can scaffold ideas and main points to envision the final draft.

  1. Introduction
    1. Hook
    2. Background
    3. Thesis statement
  2. Body Paragraph 1
    1. Topic sentence
    2. Supporting detail 1
    3. Supporting detail 2
    4. Supporting detail 3
    5. Concluding sentence (transition to next paragraph)
  3. Body Paragraph 2
    1. Topic sentence
    2. Supporting detail 1
    3. Supporting detail 2
    4. Supporting detail 3
    5. Concluding sentence (transition to next paragraph)
  4. Body Paragraph 3
    1. Topic sentence
    2. Supporting detail 1
    3. Supporting detail 2
    4. Supporting detail 3
    5. Concluding sentence (transition to the concluding paragraph)
  5. Conclusion
    1. Restate the thesis.
    2. Summary of the main points
    3. Call to action, final thoughts, or recommendations

The 5 paragraph essay structure fits into the context of most high school, college, and university essays. Its structure allows you to explore topics comprehensively and logically, making it easier to follow through with your arguments and thought process. Note that it fits the context of shorter essays. There are longer essays that can have more than 3 body paragraphs.

Check out our comprehensive research paper outlining guide that is ideal for longer essays, especially if you plan to write many paragraphs.

Example of Argumentative Essay Outline

Let’s consider the topic “AI is more beneficial to society than a Threat,” we’d have an example outline as below:

  1. Introduction
    1. Hook: Artificial intelligence has taken the world by storm, with many arguing that it brings many benefits, while others strictly believe it is more of a threat to humanity than a savior.
    2. An overview of AI and its uses in society.
    3. Thesis statement. Despite the minimal and controllable negative consequences, AI has proven to be highly beneficial for society across diverse sectors such as agriculture, transport, healthcare, finance, communication, and education, among others, leading to improved efficiency, data-driven decision-making, and innovative advancements.
  2. Enhanced Productivity
    1. Automation of tasks in industries
    2. Reduction of human error
      1. Data analysis
      2. Augmented systems and processes.
    3. Time-saving capacities
      1. Streamlining of processes.
    4. Link to improved decision-making
  3. Improved decision-making
    1. Data-driven insights
    2. Predictive modeling
    3. Link to revolutionizing healthcare
  4. Revolutionizing healthcare
    1. Medical diagnostics
    2. Complex surgeries with precision
    3. Drug discovery
    4. Personalized treatment plans
  5. Fostering Innovation
    1. Generative AI
    2. Encouraging machine learning through human-AI collaboration
    3. Rapid prototyping
    4. Transition to conclusion
  6. Conclusion
    1. A conclusion starter (As evidenced by the discussion above, …)
    2. Recap of the main points
    3. Reiteration of the thesis
    4. Closing remarks or call to action.

Check out our AI argumentative essay example to pick ideas and examples to implement when writing an outline or an essay.

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Before you Go, …

We have explored the basic outlook of a well-written essay outline. Although we have given a template and an example, essays come in different forms and formats. Ensure that you format your outline in APA, MLA, ASA, Turabian, Chicago, Vancouver, Harvard, or Oxford formats per your department's guidelines or instructions from your professor.

Even when an outline is not a requirement, ensure that you have a rough outline to serve as the skeleton of your essay.

If, for one reason or another, you cannot wrap your head around developing an outline, we have the best essay writers to help you create well-defined and organized essay outlines. Thanks to our thorough experts, you can buy essay outlines from our website and complete them based on them. Our essay help service will always be handy whenever you need a quick essay outline, even at the last minute.

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