A Beginner’s Guide to Essay Outlines

Outlining as a prewriting practice is a technique that often gets a lot of pushback, specifically from students. It makes sense that students would look at an outline as a nuisance; it is just one more thing to write on top of the actual essay itself. Truthfully, drafting an outline in preparation for an essay is another step. However, in the very minimal amount of time that an outline will require, students will essentially be saving themselves a lot of time and frustration when it comes time to actually craft the essay.


For beginning writers—or what I would consider early middle school-aged writers—an introductory paragraph can be a daunting task. Not knowing where or how to begin is a very real concern for many writers as they sit down to start the intro paragraph. A standard rule of thumb, especially for younger students, is to keep the introductory paragraph fairly succinct and direct. It should include about three sentences that introduce the reader to the subject or topic of discussion.


The first sentence should be a general statement, which loosely explains the topic, novel, question, technique, etc. Whatever the prompt is about, the general statement should address that concept or comment on it. The second sentence will be more specific, but still pertain to the content introduced previously in the general statement. A specific statement goes further into how the essay will address this topic or concept. Finally, the last sentence in the introductory paragraph should be the thesis statement—this is the point or claim that the writer is trying to make regarding the prompt or essay question.


For example, the boxes below could represent a strong outline for an introductory paragraph where the prompt asks students to explain why recycling efforts have seemed to increase over time.

General Statement Define what it means to recycle
Specific Statement Talk about when recycling efforts first began; what were the first initiatives, what prompted them? (Use class research sites)
Thesis Statement …recycling increase because of population growth, which means more trash; research about pollution and health effects; research about environmental impacts, specifically marine life


The point of the outline above is to organize the initial information that the writer wishes to convey. Complete or full sentences are not necessary in the outline; it is merely meant to provide cues for starting the essay, like a roadmap of where the intro paragraph plans to go.

Using this sample outline, a completed introductory paragraph might look like this:


Recycling involves the conversion of used materials into new or alternative materials for reuse. Processes to reuse materials and objects have taken place over centuries; however, recycling efforts have now become more important than ever before. Recycling efforts have increased over the years because of population growth, health concerns relating to pollution, and environmental distress caused by plastic in the oceans.

By taking the time to plan out the introductory paragraph and compile the necessary information to support the thesis statement, students will be prepared to write without the confusion or last-minute frustrations.