How to Start an Essay with a Structured Outline

Every essay, no matter what kind you’re writing, should start with a good outline. Sometimes a professor might ask you to turn in an outline as an extra part of your assignment, and other times they
might just want to see your final paper. Even when this isn’t required, you should always be in the habit of making one anyway.

Most students tend to skip this process, especially the ones who tend to start their essays the day before they’re due and want to finish the paper as fast as they possibly can. If this sounds like something you usually do, and you’re wondering why your essays always get average grades, this could be why.

We can tell you from our own experience that once you get in the habit of writing your papers with structured outlines, you’ll never want to avoid using one again.

Why an Outline is Important

An essay outline is a big help when it comes time to sit down and actually write your paper. Your outline tells you exactly what you need to write about, how you’re going to structure your paper, and what
information you’ll need to find.

When you’ve narrowed down your topic and determined what your thesis statement is going to be (more about thesis statements in the next chapter), you’ll be able to start building your arguments. In the outline, you can lay out the points you’re going to make so you have an idea about how you’re going to back it all up. Then, you can place everything in order and figure out exactly where your content will

Academic sources, such as scholarly journal articles, tend to be very specific. That can make things difficult when you’re doing the research and pulling evidence for your essay. With an outline, you can narrow down your search when you’re looking in databases or libraries so you get more accurate or relevant results faster. This is key to keeping you on track while you’re writing, especially if you tend to find yourself getting sidetracked or lost in all of the information out there.

An outline also helps you see everything in one place without scrolling through all of your paragraphs. This gives you a good idea of how well your essay flows together and whether it transitions nicely, which in turn makes it easy to put it all together. Once the essay outline is done, all you have to do is fill in the gaps.

How to Structure an Outline

The structure of your essay will largely depend on what type of essay you’re writing.

But the majority of essays will follow the same 5-point format: introduction, body paragraph for each argument, and conclusion. Sometimes we call this the hamburger format, because on a burger, your toppings, meat, and cheese are in the middle (your body paragraphs that contain the bulk of your argument), held together in place by the top and bottom buns (your introduction and conclusion).

You’ve probably heard that term in elementary school and high school. A university or college essay takes the same basis, but it’s a little more complex than that because, of course, you’re older and smarter now. So, when you put it all together, a basic essay outline will look like this:

  1. Introduction Paragraph
    • A catchy first sentence with a hook that captures your reader’s attention
    • Background information and/or an introduction into your topic
    • Your thesis statement
  2. Body Paragraph 1: First Argument or Point
    • topic sentence that introduces the point you’re going to make
    • Evidence to support your point
    • A transition sentence that leads into your next paragraph/argument
  3. Body Paragraph 2: Second Argument or Point
    • A topic sentence that introduces the point you’re going to make
    • Evidence to support your point
    • A transition sentence that leads into your next paragraph/argument
  4. Body Paragraph 3: Third Argument or Point
    • A topic sentence that introduces the point you’re going to make
    • Evidence to support your point
    • A transition sentence that leads into your conclusion
  5. Conclusion Paragraph
    • Your thesis statement, reworded from your introduction
    • A summary of the arguments or points that you presented, further questions or thoughts, and/or a connection to a broader theme
    • A final line that will resonate with the reader

Naturally, the longer your essay is, the more paragraphs you’ll need. If you’re writing a 10-page essay, you’re going to need more than five paragraphs. In that case, you can break up your arguments further
into separate paragraphs, but make sure each paragraph contains a theme or detail. For example, if you’re using different types of evidence to back up a point, you can showcase each piece of evidence in its own paragraph.

If you’re writing a long research paper or expository essay, you will benefit from including a paragraph of background information before you get into your body paragraphs. Include some general statistics,
summary of the time period, information about a theorist, or anything else that the reader might need to know. Likewise, for a literary analysis, you could include a paragraph with a plot summary to give your reader some background information.

However, when you take this approach, remember that your information needs to be relevant to your topic and thesis statement. Don’t just ramble on to fill up space. Professors notice this and will factor it into your mark.