How to write a formal essay outline

Written by jennifer higgins mccormick
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How to write a formal essay outline
Writing an outline can help you brainstorm and organise your ideas. (paper image by max blain from

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 organise and categorise information before writing an essay. Making an outline can also help you brainstorm your thoughts and streamline the overall writing process. The most recognisable format of a formal outline is alphanumeric, where sections are labelled with letters and numbers.

Skill level:


  1. 1

    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 labelled simply "I. Introduction" or "I. Introduction: My Educational History."

  2. 2

    List subheadings under each major heading. If following the alphanumeric format, the subheadings will be labelled with capitalised 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 labelled "II. High School Experience," possible subheadings would be labelled, "A. Worst Math Class" or "B. Favorite English Teacher."

  3. 3

    List the descriptions for each subheading. Following the alphanumeric format, the descriptions under each subheading would be labelled with Arabic numerals. The details can be in full sentence format, to help you better organise 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.
  4. 4

    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 labelling system.

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