So now you’ve brainstormed a wealth of ideas, details, and data points for your academic writing task. The next step is to organize. Your academic essay should follow an outline. The outline is the bridge from the brainstorm to the first draft.

An outline proves a clear, easy-to-follow structure for your argument. Whether for academic or business English purposes, every essay needs a plan.

Think of the outline as an architect’s blueprint for a house. The outline draws the frame upon which you will add floors, doors, windows, walls, and ceilings–all the materials that comprise your paper.

And while planning your outline, you also evaluate your ideas, choosing the best and deleting the rest. You arrange your supporting evidence so that the essay flows smoothly and persuasively. No matter the type of academic writing–research, cause/effect, compare/contrast, narrative, process–outlining is an essential part of the writing process. 

Harry Potter exclaiming

To understand useful outlining formats, first let’s review the standard 5-paragraph essay structure, the type you practice in an Academic and Business Writing Course or an Intensive English Program.

Basic essay structure for your outline

Facing an empty Word document with a writing task in hand can intimidate the best of us. Fortunately, the 5-paragraph formula gives us the bones of our written creation.

The 5-paragraph academic essay follows this general structure:

Introductory paragraph: Here you’ll capture the reader’s interest with a hook and present your thesis statement, which states your main idea or argument.

Body paragraphs: Here you’ll present your supporting claims, evidence, explanations, and so on. A basic model essay has three body paragraphs. Each body paragraph has a  topic sentence that supports the thesis statement.  The topic sentence of each body paragraph is supported by facts, data, examples, and logical reasoning. 

Concluding paragraph: This is where you create a sense of closure. You may restate your thesis and main argument in a fresh way, make a prediction, summarize a goal, add an emphatic statement, issue a call to action, or something else interesting to wrap things up, depending on your audience and purpose. 

Another way to think of this structure is that it follows a three step process of expectation, delivery, and satisfaction. 

In the introductory paragraph, the writer says, “This is what I’m going to say, and why.”

In the body paragraphs, the writer says it and shows why.

In the paragraph, the writer says, “That’s what I said and why, again. Got it?”

Three woman saying Yep, got it. Totally understand.

The 5-paragraph structure works because it appeals to a basic human psychological need for order and purpose. Academic English writing tends to be linear, meaning it follows a straight line from point A to point B to point C and so son. Outlines follow this linear structure.  

It’s not just a way of writing, but a way of thinking. Longer essays and nonfiction books follow this structure: “First, I’ll explain what I will say and why. Secondly, I’ll say, explain, and support it. Thirdly and finally, let me run that by you again, and here’s what you do with it.”

One man telling another man that

It’s also like telling a story with a beginning, middle, and end. The more you read in English, the more you will notice this linear approach to writing in sciences, literature, business–all sorts of academic and professional communication. Taking an Intensive English programacademic English course, or business English lessons is a great way to learn it. We use it because it works!

Outlining formats

Keeping in mind this linear, 50-paragraph essay structure, it’s time to write an outline.

An outline is for you and only you. You can type it on a laptop, sketch it in a notebook, or draw it on a board.You can use any format that feels comfortable and looks clear to you. You don’t want a visually confusing outline or else you might repeat, miss, or mistake information. Whatever works for you is best.

As you create your outline, you do NOT need to write sentences. Rather, your outline should consist of key words, phrases, and figures. Your aim is to plan–you can expand later. Focus on nouns, verbs, and other key words, omitting articles, prepositions, and other little words to save time and space.

If you’re writing solo, you can create one using your Microsoft Word or just a scrap of paper from the recycling bin. If you’re collaborating with peers, you might share a Google doc or white board.  If you’re taking an academic English course, your instructor may provide a template for you to fill in. 

One easy-to-follow outline format is alphanumeric, which means it uses letters of the alphabet and numbers to organize text. For example:

  1. Introduction
    1. Hook: _____________________
    2. Transition to thesis: _____________________
    3. Thesis statement with three supporting points:_____________________
  2. Body Paragraph (Most important supporting point) 
    1. Topic sentence: _____________________
    2. Evidence (data, facts, examples, logical reasoning): _____________________
    3. Connect evidence to thesis: _____________________
  3. Body Paragraph (Second most important supporting point) 
    1. Topic sentence: _____________________
    2. Evidence (data, facts, examples, logical reasoning): _____________________
    3. Connect evidence to thesis: _____________________
  4. Body Paragraph (Least important supporting point) 
    1. Topic sentence: _____________________
    2. Evidence (data, facts, examples, logical reasoning): _____________________
    3. Connect evidence to thesis: _____________________
  5. Concluding Paragraph 
    1. Restate thesis: _____________________
    2. Summarize points: _____________________
    3. Closure (prediction, comment, call to action): _____________________
A man pointing to his head and giving a thumbs up.

Another way to format the same outline is by decimals.

1. Introduction

1.1 Hook: _____________________

1.2 Transition to thesis: ____________

1.3 Thesis statement with supporting points:_____________________

2. Body Paragraph (Most important supporting point)

2.1 Topic sentence: _____________________

2.2 Evidence (data, facts, examples, logical reasoning): _______________

2.3 Connect evidence to thesis: _____________________

3. Body Paragraph (Second most important supporting point)

3.1 Topic sentence: _____________________

3.2.Evidence (data, facts, examples, logical reasoning): _______________

3.3 Connect evidence to thesis: _____________________

4. Body Paragraph (Least important supporting point)

4.1 Topic sentence: _____________________

4.2 Evidence (data, facts, examples, logical reasoning): _________________

4.3 Connect evidence to thesis: _____________________

5. Concluding Paragraph 

5.1 Restate thesis: _____________________

5.2 Summarize points: _____________________

5.3 Closure (prediction, comment, call to action): __________________

What to write in the outline?

Once you have a template or format to fill with ideas, you start to choose, subtract, and add. 

Review the writing assignment. What’s the purpose? To inform, persuade, narrate, or something else? Your purpose guides your choices of which reasons, facts, and figures to include.

Review your brainstorm. Which data, key words, and phrases jump out as the most effective ways to support your argument? Add them to your outline. Which are least relevant, persuasive, or interesting? Forget those. 

Consider your audience. Yes, you’re writing to your professor, but you’re not really directing your argument to him or her. In academic and business writing, your aim is usually to address a general reader who is well-educated but not necessarily an expert in your field. 

Thus, your job is to get your ideas across to this general reader. What does your audience already know, believe, and care about? Do you have to define a technical term, explain a cultural assumption, or clarify a common misunderstanding in order to reach your readers. Should you appeal to their emotions, logic, or ethics, meaning their sense of right or wrong?

Imagine you’re reading your essay aloud to a room full of people. What reactions can you expect as you speak each line? Smiles? Frowns? Heads shaking in disagreement or nodding in agreement? Are they even paying attention? If not, spice it up with a shocking fact or vivid image.

How can you make your argument matter to them? Which facts, figures, and logical reasoning would pull in your readers? What assumptions, claims, and examples should you avoid in order NOT to push your readers away? 

It’s not about you, it’s about the reader. So, as you fill out your outline, keep in mind the effects of the ideas and data on your all-important audience.

Where to turn next? To practice the art of essay writing, join an academic English program or take business English lessons. It’s one thing to get this stuff in theory, but another thing to actually do it and get it right. With feedback and guidance from a friendly and knowledgeable English instructor, you can improve your ability to gather the raw materials of a brainstorm, build an outline, and polish off an essay.

A hand drawing a smiley face and writing smile on an open book.

Chris Elliott is an ESOL instructor and Academic Coordinator at the International Language Institute of Massachusetts. Located two hours from Boston in the heart of the lovely town of Northampton among several world-class universities, ILI offers academic English classes, business English lessons, Intensive English courses, and much more. The writing process can be difficult, so it pays off to join an academic English course. With the guidance of an expert EAP instructor and the support of university-bound peers, you can master these skills.

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