Essay outline guide | Templates and samples (MLA and APA)

Before You Start: Preparation

• Always make sure that you begin preparing for your essay plenty of time in advance.
This will ensure that you give enough time for each step necessary to achieving your goal.
• Choose your topic early and stick with it so that you will have access to the most resources possible.
• As you write your outline, keep a copy of your essay and all of your research notes


Doing Your Research

The sources that you will use to write an essay are generally divided into two different types: primary and secondary sources. You will need both in order to write an essay that is perceived well by your professor, tutor, or instructor.
A primary source is an original piece of text produced at the same time that the events described in the source took place. These sources can include letters, diaries, films, interviews, surveys, legal and political documents, newspapers reporting current (and not past) events, and all types of fiction. A secondary source is one that interprets primary sources or past events, such as an academic essay or non-fiction book based on research. For most essays, secondary sources will suffice, while for research essays primary sources are also often necessary.


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Getting Started

Here is a template that you can use to write your essay outline, once you have collected your sources.


The Thesis Statement

A thesis statement is the first thing that is necessary for your outline. This statement of your core idea or argument allows you to express your opinion about a topic in a concise way. A thesis statement is not a topic or a question, but rather an interpretation of a topic or question. For example, if the topic is the Vietnam War, then the thesis must outline an opinion about the war, its effects, or its causes. The statement must also be as narrow as possible, ensuring that it is possible to discuss all relevant information about the topic. A sample of this statement could be: The Vietnam War began because of complex socioeconomic issues in southeast Asia which were complicated by US interventionism.


Outline Part 1: The Introduction Section

The introduction of your essay allows you to familiarize your reader with your thesis and the general information known about your topic. This first section also gives you the opportunity to outline what you will be covering in your research and the conclusions that you expect to find.


What you’ll need to include in your outline:

• Thesis statement
• Topic and areas of research
• Expected conclusion


Outline Part 2: The Analysis Section

This is the main body of the essay, and usually consists of a minimum of three paragraphs, but can run to many pages, approximately 75% of the total essay length. The analysis section allows you to provide background information on other research completed on this topic in the past, or related topics that may have an effect on your findings.
One good way to organize your argument is to establish three reasons why your thesis is correct, by supplying information on all sides of the issue. Provide supporting evidence from the research that you have completed to back up each of these three reasons to support your thesis. You will likely need at least two or three different citations from your reference list for each reason.
You should also provide an analysis of the counter-arguments to your thesis. You can generate counter-arguments by asking yourself what someone who disagrees with you might say about the points you have made, or the proof you have provided from the academic literature.


What you’ll need to include in your outline:

• Argument 1, rationale, and counterargument
• Argument 2, rationale, and counterargument
• Argument 3, rationale, and counterargument
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Outline Part 3: The Conclusion Section

In this section, you will need to paraphrase your thesis argument and its main justification, and show why your thesis is correct. This is not the space to introduce new information, but rather to sum up everything that you have proven in your essay.


What you’ll need to include in your outline:

• Whether your thesis statement is backed by the research you have completed
• How your findings can help or hinder an understanding of the topic as a whole


Outline Part 4: Essay Citations and References

Even in your outline, you will need to reference these examples or concepts, see what research had been done to support your ideas, and agree or disagree with certain theorists in the field.
There are a number of different reference types. The APA style is used for essays in the social sciences—such as anthropology, economics, psychology, and sociology. The life sciences—such as biology, environmental science, medicine—use a similar style such as Chicago or Turabian. Finally, English literature essays use a style called MLA. In general, MLA and APA are the most common essay referencing systems.
With all styles, you will need in-text citations and a reference list in your essay outline. An in-text citation refers to citing the source of a direct quote or idea provided in the scholarly literature. While APA requires page numbers for quotations only, some professors who prefer MLA style will ask for a page number citation for each idea. Chicago in-text citations are footnotes, while the other styles just present the citation in brackets after each quote or idea. It is best to use the citation system recommended by your professor or school, because there are often variations.


Plan Carefully

Writing an essay outline, if it is done well, is a detailed process. The most important thing to understand is that an essay is always a personal opinion, and therefore what you think about a topic cannot be considered true or false. It is your job to critically evaluate research sources in order to determine their validity and importance with respect to your topic. This is as true in an essay outline as in the full essay. Make sure you dedicate as much time to your outline as you expect to do when you write your essay. A good rule of thumb is to spend 8 hours working on each page of your essay.


Essay Samples

Take a look at these essay samples to get an idea of how to structure your own work when doing different types of essays. 

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