How to Write a Formal Essay Outline

Writing an outline can help you brainstorm and organize your ideas.

Before you sit down to write an essay, it is a good idea to map out the concepts you wish to explore in your paper. Creating an outline is a good way to organize and categorize information before writing an essay. Making an outline can also help you brainstorm your thoughts and streamline the overall writing process. The most recognizable format of a formal outline is alpha-numeric, where sections are labeled with letters and numbers.

List all of the major ideas of your paper as headings for each section. The major ideas can be listed in phrase form or as full sentences. For example, for your introduction heading could be labeled simply “I. Introduction” or “I. Introduction: My Educational History.”

List subheadings under each major heading. If following the alpha-numeric format, the subheadings will be labeled with capitalized letters. The subheadings should be details of each heading, in the order that you wish to discuss them. Subheadings should categorically match each heading. For example, if the heading is labeled “II. High School Experience,” possible subheadings would be labeled, “A. Worst Math Class” or “B. Favorite English Teacher.”

List the descriptions for each subheading. Following the alpha-numeric format, the descriptions under each subheading would be labeled with Arabic numerals. The details can be in full sentence format, to help you better organize your thoughts on paper. At this point, a section in the outline would look something like this:

II. My High School Experience: The best and worst of times A. My Worst Math Class was Algebra III 1. The guy who sat behind me fell asleep and snored loudly every day.

Write your essay using the formal outline as a step-by-step guide. You could start your essay by using the outline as a fill-in-the-blank template. Later, during revisions, you could edit out the numbering and labeling system.

Jennifer Higgins McCormick has been a business and sociology professor since 2007. She has been writing articles online and Web content for several marketing firms since 2010. She holds a Master of Business Administration from Medaille College and a doctorate in sociology from the University at Buffalo.