The purpose of an outline is twofold: first, to help you organize your ideas. Second, to help readers follow along with your ideas. Think of an outline as a map for your essay. An essay without some kind of structure often flounders because readers get lost. The following are basic principles of essay organization that should help you craft logically organized papers that keep readers (and you!) on track.
- Always include a clear thesis. Think of this as the essay's destination. It essentially tells readers where the essay is going. Without a clear destination, readers might wonder why they are there, reading the essay in the first place!
- Keep one main idea per paragraph. Including a topic sentence—a one-sentence summary of the paragraph's main idea—is an effective way to keep the paragraph focused. Think of each topic sentence as a mini-thesis in support of the essay's overall thesis.
- Include evidence to support all claims. Usually, one quote or paraphrase per paragraph is an effective use of evidence. Spend at least 2-3 sentences analyzing and explaining each quote.
- Be flexible. An essay changes over time. Be willing to adapt and adjust the outline to fit the needs of the essay. If it doesn't serve your essay, let it go.
General Essay Template
This essay template is not meant to be prescriptive (the end all, be all), but to provide a commonly used essay structure students can adapt to write their own essays. As with any learning resource, students should choose organizational methods to enhance their learning and writing process.
Paragraph 1: Introduction
Sentence 1: Hook
Captures readers' attention and interest through a quote, one or two-sentence short story, or a startling statistic.
Sentence 2-3: Context/Background
Helps readers understand where the essay fits into the scholarly discourse by providing background information on the essay topic. For example, you might briefly summarize your research on your topic (what other people/scholars have said about your topic) or you might give historical background on your topic, depending on the essay prompt.
Sentence 4: (The) Thesis statement
Articulates the main argument of the essay. It should be short, specific, debatable, and clear.
Sentence 5: Essay map/sign post
Uses the last sentence(s) of the introduction to transition into body paragraphs. This may look like a "map" where you state the main arguments you will make in your essay. For example, this argument is true because of reason X, reason Y, and reason Z. Basically, you give readers an idea of where the essay is going.
Paragraphs 2-10+: Body Paragraphs
Sentence 1: Topic sentence
Summarizes the main argument or point of the paragraph.
Sentence 2: Present evidence
Present evidence in the form of quotes or paraphrasing from authoritative primary or secondary sources, which supports the paragraph main idea, as well as the thesis main idea. The more scholarly the source, the better; check with your librarian if you are unfamiliar with in-text citations.
Sentence 3: Analyze, interpret, and explain evidence
Use your own words to do so. While what the information means may be clear to you, the writer, you should not assume that readers will understand the information. Explain everything within reason.
Sentence 4: Contextualize evidence
Show how evidence relates to and supports your thesis statement
Sentence 5: Transition
Introduce the next paragraph topic by using a linking word, phrase, or idea. This will improve your essay's organization and "flow."
Final Paragraph: Conclusion
Sentence 1: Restate thesis statement
State the thesis using new words. This helps readers remember the focus of the essay.
Sentence 2-3: Briefly summarize main arguments
Present a summary of the essay's main arguments. Again, this reminds readers of your main points in case they have forgotten.
Sentence 4-5: Explain the significance
Indicate the significance of your analysis and/or research to other scholars in your field/scholars of the subject or topic/society in general. This is also called the "takeaway." Your readers should feel like they learned something new or are seeing the literature in a new light.
General Essay Advice
- Be as specific as possible.
- Stay on topic. All information in the essay should work towards proving your argument. (Use it or lose it.)
- Use the known-new contract. Every sentence should "flow" into the next sentence, unless intentionally breaking the flow to make a point. This is achieved by using repeated words, ideas, or phrases from one sentence to the next.
- Practice ethical attribution. Do not plagiarize. Plagiarism can result in an F for the essay and the course, and can even result in expulsion. When in doubt, ask your professor or librarian. Using ethical attribution is the best way to avoid plagiarism, as it also helps you build credibility as a writer and literary scholar.
- For more information on essay writing—specifically works cited/references, citation, and formatting (MLA)—please visit the chapter on Ethical Attribution.