How to write an effective outline for academic essays

Outlining can be, “Ugh, just another thing I need to do to get my essay done…” or you can make it an easy and painless task that will help you get through your essay faster when you actually get down to writing it. If you want to learn more about outlines and how to create them, then this article is for you.


Full disclosure: at EssayJack we love outlines because not only are they time-savers but they can be used for virtually any type of communication – essays, speeches, presentations, blogs, letters, proposals, etc. So let’s get started.


Jump to:

Outlining basics

Include information on what an outline is, how long it should be and when you need to write one.


Types of outlines & when to use them

Explains the two main types of outlines available and how and when to use them. 


Writing an outline step-by-step

Learn to understand the purpose of your essay in order to choose the order and structure of your outline. Includes a bonus tip on how to get an outline done quickly with EssayJack. 


Checklist for an effective outline

Use these six points to check if you’ve got a solid outline.



what to include in an essay outline for university from Dr Rueban, our cofounder, in the video below. 





1 d) How long does an outline have to be?

This really depends on the type of essay and the complexity of your arguments. Maybe you’re writing a simple five-paragraph essay. Well then, your outline can be a few lines as long as you include the main idea, supporting points, and a rough conclusion. 


For an argumentative essay or an essay at the university level you’ll need to have a more detailed outline with the same components as a simpler outline but with more details that include evidence and explanation for your supporting points. This should be no longer than 1 to 2 pages. 



1 e)When should I write an outline?

Writing an outline isn’t a process that you need to do at a specific time during the writing process. It all depends on how much research is required, how familiar you might be with the topic, and if you have an idea of what you want to write about. So you might be able to sketch out a quick outline immediately after you’re given an essay question, or you might need to do some research to figure out a thesis or an angle to tackle the topic you’ve been given first. 


The good thing about outlining is that it can help you figure out if you’ll need to do more research, refine your thesis, or learn more about topic. If you’re struggling to create an outline with supporting points, evidence, and explanation, then it’s likely that you need to do more reading to support your thesis or learn more about the topic to form an opinion on it.


The only real rule, when it comes to writing outlines, is to write one before your dive into writing your entire essay draft!


1 f) Can I change my outline?

Yes, of course! An outline among other things helps you think through the logic or flow of your essay. So changing your outline is definitely part of the process. Heck, when you share your outline with someone for a review or some feedback, you might have to add to it, edit or rearrange it. 


Here are some questions you should ask peers or your educators (or yourself) when trying to get feedback on your outline:

– Do you understand it?

– Does it make logical sense?

– Is it clear?

– Is the thesis plausible?

– Do the supporting points make sense?


You can also ask yourself if you have enough reliable sources for the evidence you present for your supporting points. This can also be something your educator can give you feedback on and they may even point you to more resources to include.


By the way, effective note-taking can make the process of outlining much easier. So check out the video below on how to take notes well when you’re researching and reading articles at university. 





Lumen Learning.



2 c) What type of outline should I use?

If you’re not sure what kind of outline you’ll need, you can look back to your assignment and ask your teacher or professor. Are you writing a short essay of around 500 words? A quick topic outline for one of those might be fine.


For a longer academic essay, at high school or university level, a full-sentence outline with numbering (alphanumeric) might be the better choice to help you think through your arguments. 


If you have trouble with outlining try using EssayJack to form an initial outline. Answer the prompts in each of the text boxes for the Introduction section and you’ll have a rough outline which you can then export in a Google or Word doc and elaborate on. 


Fill out introduction for a quick outline



thesis statement for your essay
– Your audience 


Make sure you can answer all the above before starting your outline. This will help you understand how you need to order your outline and eventual essay. Are you writing to argue a point of view, help someone understand a process, or just describe something?


3 b) Choosing an order 

When you write an outline you are essentially creating a structure and order for your future essay. You’ll need to give a little bit of thought to how you want to order your essay – chronologically, spatially, or by importance.


Fill out introduction for a quick outline

Chronologically, or order something based on what comes first is for telling a story, how an event occurred or should occur, or to outline steps in a process. This will be more relevant for narrative, expository, and argumentative essays. 


Spatial order is when you want to describe how something is seen to help reader visualise it. This is usually most helpful for narrative or descriptive essays where you’re moving your audience forward in a story or through a description. 


Order of importance which is pretty straightforward can is used to can be used to convince or persuade, and rank your arguments in order of importance. This is the most common type of ordering and used for argumentative essays such as a persuasive speech. 



3 c) Creating the structure 

i) Structure for a short essay


If you’re writing a short, around 500-word five-paragraph essay, your outline structure can look something like this:


Main idea: what is the main idea or thesis statement you want to present?

Supporting idea 1: what is the first point that proves your idea correct?

Supporting idea 2: what is the second point that proves your idea correct?

Supporting idea 3: what is the third point that proves your idea correct?

Conclusion: re-state why your idea is correct and how your points support it. 


Outline for a short or simple essay


Below is an example outline for a five-paragraph essay with the purpose of explaining why one-on-one meetings between students and educators should be made mandatory. 


Main idea – e.g. Regular one-on-one in-person meetings between educators and students should be made mandatory to prevent students dropping out. 

Supporting idea 1 – Students are more open to talk about personal challenges during to one-on-one meeting

Supporting idea 2 – Educators can provide focused and specific support students need for academic subjects

Supporting idea 3 – Institutions can ensure all their students get personalised attention and further support if needed.  

Conclusion – Research and evidence show that more focused and personalised attention for students at secondary and tertiary level reduce dropout levels. 


ii) Structure for a long essay


If you’re writing a longer 1500-word argumentative essay, you can structure your outline to look something like this:


Topic: what is the topic of your essay?

Thesis statement: what is the main argument you want to present?

Supporting idea 1: what is the first point that proves your idea correct? 

Evidence for supporting idea 1: what research shows this?

Explanation for evidence – how does the evidence support point 1?


Supporting idea 2: what is the second point that proves your idea correct?

Evidence for supporting idea 2: what research shows this?

Explanation for evidence – how does the evidence support point 2?


Supporting idea 3: what is the third point that proves your idea correct?

Evidence for supporting idea 3: what research shows this?

Explanation for evidence: how does the evidence support point 1?


Conclusion: re-state why your idea is correct and how your points support it. 


Outline for a long essay


You might be asked to include counterpoints in your essay, so you can add those to your outline as well. After each supporting point add in a counterpoint with evidence and explanation which will help you prove that you’ve taken the the counterpoint into consideration but that in fact it does not affect your supporting point



3 d) Creating an outline with EssayJack 


An easier way to create a sentence outline would be to use any EssayJack smart template. You can pick a template for the type of essay you are writing and simply answer the question in each text box with one sentence, giving you a quick full-sentence outline. You can then export the outline or share it with friends and educators who also use the EssayJack platform to get feedback. 


The left side of the image below shows how creating an outline in EssayJack is simply about following the structure set out for an essay and answering the interrogative questions in the text boxes. This is then pulled together to form a full essay draft or an outline which you can see on the right side of the image. 


Outlining in EssayJack


Use the following checklist to see if you’ve got an effective and useful outline:


1. Does my outline have a structure – main idea, supporting points, conclusion?

2. Do my supporting points relate back to my main idea?

3. Do my supporting points have relevant evidence listed (for longer essays or research papers)?

4. Does my one line explanation for each piece of evidence make sense (for longer essays or research papers)?

5. Is my outline organised using one order (chronological, spatial, or order of importance)?

6. Is my outline clear for someone else to read and understand?



Remember, when you’re given an assignment that requires you to write an essay, it’s good to form a habit of writing an outline first. You can write a quick one then build it out slowly as you do more research but make sure you hit all the relevant points in the checklist and you’re good to go!


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