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How to Write an Essay Outline | Guidelines & Examples

Published on August 14, 2020 by Jack Caulfield . Revised on July 23, 2023.

An essay outline is a way of planning the structure of your essay before you start writing. It involves writing quick summary sentences or phrases for every point you will cover in each paragraph , giving you a picture of how your argument will unfold.

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Table of contents

Organizing your material, presentation of the outline, examples of essay outlines, other interesting articles, frequently asked questions about essay outlines.

At the stage where you’re writing an essay outline, your ideas are probably still not fully formed. You should know your topic  and have already done some preliminary research to find relevant sources , but now you need to shape your ideas into a structured argument.

Creating categories

Look over any information, quotes and ideas you’ve noted down from your research and consider the central point you want to make in the essay—this will be the basis of your thesis statement . Once you have an idea of your overall argument, you can begin to organize your material in a way that serves that argument.

Try to arrange your material into categories related to different aspects of your argument. If you’re writing about a literary text, you might group your ideas into themes; in a history essay, it might be several key trends or turning points from the period you’re discussing.

Three main themes or subjects is a common structure for essays. Depending on the length of the essay, you could split the themes into three body paragraphs, or three longer sections with several paragraphs covering each theme.

As you create the outline, look critically at your categories and points: Are any of them irrelevant or redundant? Make sure every topic you cover is clearly related to your thesis statement.

Order of information

When you have your material organized into several categories, consider what order they should appear in.

Your essay will always begin and end with an introduction and conclusion , but the organization of the body is up to you.

Consider these questions to order your material:

  • Is there an obvious starting point for your argument?
  • Is there one subject that provides an easy transition into another?
  • Do some points need to be set up by discussing other points first?

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Within each paragraph, you’ll discuss a single idea related to your overall topic or argument, using several points of evidence or analysis to do so.

In your outline, you present these points as a few short numbered sentences or phrases.They can be split into sub-points when more detail is needed.

The template below shows how you might structure an outline for a five-paragraph essay.

  • Thesis statement
  • First piece of evidence
  • Second piece of evidence
  • Summary/synthesis
  • Importance of topic
  • Strong closing statement

You can choose whether to write your outline in full sentences or short phrases. Be consistent in your choice; don’t randomly write some points as full sentences and others as short phrases.

Examples of outlines for different types of essays are presented below: an argumentative, expository, and literary analysis essay.

Argumentative essay outline

This outline is for a short argumentative essay evaluating the internet’s impact on education. It uses short phrases to summarize each point.

Its body is split into three paragraphs, each presenting arguments about a different aspect of the internet’s effects on education.

  • Importance of the internet
  • Concerns about internet use
  • Thesis statement: Internet use a net positive
  • Data exploring this effect
  • Analysis indicating it is overstated
  • Students’ reading levels over time
  • Why this data is questionable
  • Video media
  • Interactive media
  • Speed and simplicity of online research
  • Questions about reliability (transitioning into next topic)
  • Evidence indicating its ubiquity
  • Claims that it discourages engagement with academic writing
  • Evidence that Wikipedia warns students not to cite it
  • Argument that it introduces students to citation
  • Summary of key points
  • Value of digital education for students
  • Need for optimism to embrace advantages of the internet

Expository essay outline

This is the outline for an expository essay describing how the invention of the printing press affected life and politics in Europe.

The paragraphs are still summarized in short phrases here, but individual points are described with full sentences.

  • Claim that the printing press marks the end of the Middle Ages.
  • Provide background on the low levels of literacy before the printing press.
  • Present the thesis statement: The invention of the printing press increased circulation of information in Europe, paving the way for the Reformation.
  • Discuss the very high levels of illiteracy in medieval Europe.
  • Describe how literacy and thus knowledge and education were mainly the domain of religious and political elites.
  • Indicate how this discouraged political and religious change.
  • Describe the invention of the printing press in 1440 by Johannes Gutenberg.
  • Show the implications of the new technology for book production.
  • Describe the rapid spread of the technology and the printing of the Gutenberg Bible.
  • Link to the Reformation.
  • Discuss the trend for translating the Bible into vernacular languages during the years following the printing press’s invention.
  • Describe Luther’s own translation of the Bible during the Reformation.
  • Sketch out the large-scale effects the Reformation would have on religion and politics.
  • Summarize the history described.
  • Stress the significance of the printing press to the events of this period.

Literary analysis essay outline

The literary analysis essay outlined below discusses the role of theater in Jane Austen’s novel Mansfield Park .

The body of the essay is divided into three different themes, each of which is explored through examples from the book.

  • Describe the theatricality of Austen’s works
  • Outline the role theater plays in Mansfield Park
  • Introduce the research question : How does Austen use theater to express the characters’ morality in Mansfield Park ?
  • Discuss Austen’s depiction of the performance at the end of the first volume
  • Discuss how Sir Bertram reacts to the acting scheme
  • Introduce Austen’s use of stage direction–like details during dialogue
  • Explore how these are deployed to show the characters’ self-absorption
  • Discuss Austen’s description of Maria and Julia’s relationship as polite but affectionless
  • Compare Mrs. Norris’s self-conceit as charitable despite her idleness
  • Summarize the three themes: The acting scheme, stage directions, and the performance of morals
  • Answer the research question
  • Indicate areas for further study

If you want to know more about AI tools , college essays , or fallacies make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples or go directly to our tools!

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You will sometimes be asked to hand in an essay outline before you start writing your essay . Your supervisor wants to see that you have a clear idea of your structure so that writing will go smoothly.

Even when you do not have to hand it in, writing an essay outline is an important part of the writing process . It’s a good idea to write one (as informally as you like) to clarify your structure for yourself whenever you are working on an essay.

If you have to hand in your essay outline , you may be given specific guidelines stating whether you have to use full sentences. If you’re not sure, ask your supervisor.

When writing an essay outline for yourself, the choice is yours. Some students find it helpful to write out their ideas in full sentences, while others prefer to summarize them in short phrases.

You should try to follow your outline as you write your essay . However, if your ideas change or it becomes clear that your structure could be better, it’s okay to depart from your essay outline . Just make sure you know why you’re doing so.

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How to Write an Essay Outline + Essay Outline Examples

Download for free, how to write an essay outline + essay outline examples .

Writing an essay can seem like a daunting task, but one of the best ways to tackle this challenge is to organize your ideas into a well-structured essay outline. This guide will walk you through the process of creating an essay outline, complete with essay outline examples, to ensure your next essay is a masterpiece.

We’ve compiled a variety of essay outline examples to help you understand how to structure your own essay. We'll cover persuasive essays, narrative essays, descriptive essays, expository essays, and even provide a sample research paper outline. Each example will provide you with an idea of how to lay out the structure and details for each type of essay.

Looking for a printable list of essay outline examples? Our printable PDF features essay outline examples and templates that your students can use as examples when writing research papers, or as a supplement for an essay-writing unit

Why write an essay outline? 

An outline serves as the skeleton of your essay, giving you a clear and organized path to articulate your thoughts. Not only does it make writing an essay significantly easier, but it also allows you to present your arguments coherently and effectively.

An essay outline will help you organize your main ideas and determine the order in which you are going to write about them.

Student receives essay feedback A+ . Essay outline examples.

Types of essay outlines

Several types of essay outlines can be used when writing an essay. The two most common types are the alphanumeric outline and the decimal outline.

An alphanumeric outline typically uses Roman numerals, capital letters, Arabic numerals, and lowercase letters, in that order. Each level provides a different level of specificity. This structure is a very effective way to think through how you will organize and present the information in your essay. It also helps you develop a strong argumentative essay.

Alternatively, a decimal outline uses only numbers, and each subsection is a decimal subdivision of the main section. This type of outline is often used in scientific papers.

Persuasive essay outline example 

In the following section, we'll explore a persuasive essay outline example on competitive swimming. The purpose of a persuasive essay is to convince the reader of a particular point of view or idea, using compelling arguments and evidence.

In this case, the argument is that competitive swimming is an ideal sport for kids. The essay will present a series of arguments to support this view, demonstrating the various benefits of competitive swimming for children.

Competitive Swimming, an Ideal Sport for Kids

Introduction

Start your argumentative essay outline by stating your point of view and/or presenting your persuasive argument.

Thesis: Competitive swimming is a great alternative to other youth sports.

Body Paragraph 1

Introduce your primary persuasive argument and provide supporting details in your argumentative essay outline.

Topic Sentence:   Competitive swimming provides the same benefits as other sports.

  • Detail Sentence 1:   It is good exercise and builds muscular strength.
  • Detail Sentence 2:   It promotes cooperation among team members, especially in relays.

Body Paragraph 2

Introduce a secondary argument and provide supporting details.

Topic Sentence:   Competitive swimming provides some unique additional benefits.

  • Detail Sentence 1:   Swimming is an important skill that can be used forever.
  • Detail Sentence 2:  Swimming poses a reduced risk of injury.
  • Detail Sentence 3:   Each swimmer can easily chart his or her own progress.

Conclude your essay writing with a summary of the thesis and persuasive arguments. Brainstorming details that support your point-of-view is a great way to start before creating your outline and first draft.

Concluding Sentence:   There are many reasons why competitive swimming is a great alternative to other youth sports, including...

Narrative essay outline example

In the following section, we will examine a narrative essay outline example titled "How Losing a Swim Meet Made Me a Better Swimmer." Narrative essays aim to tell a story, often about a personal experience, to engage the reader and convey a particular point or lesson.

In this case, the narrative revolves around the author's personal journey of improvement and self-discovery through swimming. The essay will illustrate how an initial setback served as a catalyst for significant improvement and personal growth.

How Losing a Swim Meet Made Me a Better Swimmer

Introduce the subject of your narrative essay using a thesis statement and a plan of development (POD).

Thesis: The first time I participated in a competitive swim meet, I finished in last place. With more focused training and coaching, I was able to finish 2nd in the State Championship meet.

Plan of development:   I was very disappointed in my results from the first meet, so I improved my training and fitness. This helped me swim better and faster, which helped me to greatly improve my results.

Set the scene and provide supporting details. Again, start by brainstorming different ways to begin; then go ahead and craft an outline and a first draft.

Topic Sentence:   I was embarrassed at finishing last in my first competitive swim meet, so I began working on ways to improve my performance.

  • Detail Sentence 1:   I spent extra time with my coach and the team captains learning how to improve my technique.
  • Detail Sentence 2:   I started running and lifting weights to increase my overall fitness level.

Provide additional supporting details, descriptions, and experiences to develop your general idea in your essay writing.

Topic Sentence:   Over time, my results began to improve and I was able to qualify for the state championship meet.

  • Detail Sentence 1:   My technique and fitness level made me faster and able to swim longer distances.
  • Detail Sentence 2:  I steadily got better, and I began winning or placing in the top 3 at most of my meets.
  • Detail Sentence 3:  My results improved to the point that I was able to qualify for the state championship meet.

Body Paragraph 3

The next step in the writing process is to provide additional supporting details, descriptions, and experiences. You can then divide them up under different headings.

Topic Sentence:   With my new confidence, techniques, and fitness level, I was able to finish 2nd at the state championship meet.

  • Detail Sentence 1:   I was able to swim well against a higher level of competition due to my training and technique.
  • Detail Sentence 2:  I was no longer embarrassed about my last-place finish, and was able to use it as motivation!

Conclude the narrative essay with a recap of the events described or a reflection on the lesson learned in the story. Briefly summarize the details you included under each heading.

Concluding Sentence:   I used my last-place finish in my first competitive swim meet as motivation to improve my performance.

Descriptive essay outline example

We will now delve into a descriptive essay outline example. Descriptive essays aim to create a vivid and detailed description of a person, place, object, or event to paint a picture for the reader. The intention is to immerse the reader in the subject matter fully.

In this case, the essay provides an in-depth description of a visit to the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto. The essay will use sensory and descriptive details to create a vivid and memorable experience for the reader.

Visiting the Hockey Hall of Fame

Introduce the subject of your descriptive essay with a thesis statement covering the person, place, object, etc. you are writing about.

Thesis: The Hockey Hall of Fame is full of sights, sounds, and experiences that will delight hockey fans of all ages.

Set the scene and provide factual details.

Topic Sentence:   The Hockey Hall of Fame is located in Toronto, Canada and features exhibits from amateur and professional hockey.

  • Detail Sentence 1:   The Hall is located in downtown Toronto and is visited by 1 million people every year.
  • Detail Sentence 2:   You can see exhibits ranging from the early beginnings of the sport to the modern NHL and Olympics.

Provide additional sensory details, descriptions, and experiences.

Topic Sentence:   There are many types of exhibits and shows, including activities you can participate in.

  • Detail Sentence 1:  Player statues, plaques, and jerseys decorate the walls in every room of the Hall.
  • Detail Sentence 2:  Many of the exhibits have movies and multimedia activities that make you feel like you're part of the game.
  • Detail Sentence 3:  You can even practice shooting pucks on virtual versions of some of the game's greatest goalies!

Conclude the essay with a paragraph that restates the thesis and recaps the descriptive and sensory details.

Concluding Sentence:   The Hockey Hall of Fame is an experience that combines the best sights, sounds and history of the game in Toronto.

Expository essay outline example

In the following section, we will explore an example of an expository essay. An expository essay aims to explain or describe a topic using logic. It presents a balanced analysis of a topic based on facts—with no references to the writer’s opinions or emotions.

For this example, the topic is "Why The School Year Should be Shorter". This essay will use logic and reason to demonstrate that a shorter school year could provide various benefits for students, teachers, and school districts.

Why The School Year Should be Shorter

Introduce the primary argument or main point of an expository essay, or other types of academic writing, using a thesis statement and context.

Thesis: The school year is too long, and should be shortened to benefit students and teachers, save districts money, and improve test scores and academic results. Other countries have shorter school years, and achieve better results.

Describe the primary argument and provide supporting details and evidence.

Topic Sentence:   A shorter school year would benefit students and teachers by giving them more time off.

  • Detail Sentence 1:   Students and teachers would be able to spend more time with their families.
  • Detail Sentence 2:  Teachers would be refreshed and rejuvenated and able to teach more effectively.

Provide additional supporting details and evidence, as in this essay outline example.

Topic Sentence:  A shorter school year would save school districts millions of dollars per year.

  • Detail Sentence 1:   Districts could save money on energy costs by keeping schools closed longer.
  • Detail Sentence 2:  A shorter school year means much lower supply and transportation costs.
  • Detail Sentence 3:  Well-rested and happy students would help improve test scores.

Provide additional or supplemental supporting details, evidence, and analysis, as in the essay outline example.

Topic Sentence:   Shortening the school year would also provide many benefits for parents and caregivers.

  • Detail Sentence 1:   A shorter school year would mean less stress and running around for parents.
  • Detail Sentence 2:  Caregivers would have more balance in their lives with fewer days in the school year.

Conclude the essay with an overview of the main argument, and highlight the importance of your evidence and conclusion.

Concluding Sentence:   Shortening the school year would be a great way to improve the quality of life for students, teachers, and parents while saving money for districts and improving academic results.

Sample research paper outline

Now let’s dive into a research paper outline. Unlike a typical essay, a research paper presents a thorough and detailed study on a specific topic. However, it shares the same foundation with an essay in terms of structuring the ideas logically and coherently. The outline for a research paper includes an introduction, a series of topic points that cover various aspects of the main topic, and a conclusion.

This research paper will explore the background of Mt. Everest, the major explorers who attempted its summit, and the impact of these expeditions on Mt. Everest and the local community.

The Conquest of Mt. Everest

  • Location of Mt. Everest
  • Geography of the Surrounding Area
  • Height of the mountain
  • Jomolungma (Tibetan name)
  • Sagarmatha (Nepalese name)
  • The number of people who have climbed Everest to date
  • First to reach the summit (1953)
  • Led a team of experienced mountain climbers who worked together
  • Norgay was an experienced climber and guide who accompanied Hillary
  • Sherpas still used to guide expeditions
  • Leader of the failed 1996 expedition
  • Led group of (mainly) tourists with little mountain climbing experience
  • Loss of trees due to high demand for wood for cooking and heating for tourists.
  • Piles of trash left by climbing expeditions
  • Expedition fees provide income for the country
  • Expeditions provide work for the Sherpas, contributing to the local economy.
  • Introduction of motor vehicles
  • Introduction of electricity

The Everest essay outline template is based on a research paper submitted by Alexandra Ferber, 9th grade.

Happy writing!

Writing an essay outline is a crucial step in crafting a well-structured and coherent essay. Regardless of the type of essay - be it persuasive, narrative, descriptive, expository, or a research paper - an outline serves as a roadmap that organizes your thoughts and guides your writing process. The various essay outline examples provided above serve as a guide to help you structure your own essay. Remember, the key to a great essay lies not just in the content but in its organization and flow. Happy writing!

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Alphanumeric Outlines

This is the most common type of outline and usually instantly recognizable to most people. The formatting follows these characters, in this order:

  • Roman Numerals
  • Capitalized Letters
  • Arabic Numerals
  • Lowercase Letters

If the outline needs to subdivide beyond these divisions, use Arabic numerals inside parentheses and then lowercase letters inside parentheses. Select the "Sample Outlines" PDF in the Media Box above to download the sample of this outline.

The sample PDF in the Media Box above is an example of an outline that a student might create before writing an essay. In order to organize her thoughts and make sure that she has not forgotten any key points that she wants to address, she creates the outline as a framework for her essay.

What is the assignment?

Your instructor asks the class to write an expository (explanatory) essay on the typical steps a high school student would follow in order to apply to college.

What is the purpose of this essay?

To explain the process for applying to college

Who is the intended audience for this essay?

High school students intending to apply to college and their parents

What is the essay's thesis statement?

When applying to college, a student follows a certain process which includes choosing the right schools and preparing the application materials.

Full Sentence Outlines

The full sentence outline format is essentially the same as the Alphanumeric outline. The main difference (as the title suggests) is that full sentences are required at each level of the outline. This outline is most often used when preparing a traditional essay. Select the "Sample Outlines" PDF in the Media Box above to download the sample of this outline.

Decimal Outlines

The decimal outline is similar in format to the alphanumeric outline. The added benefit is a system of decimal notation that clearly shows how every level of the outline relates to the larger whole. Select the "Sample Outlines" PDF in the Media Box above to download the sample of this outline.

Tips for Reading an Assignment Prompt

Asking analytical questions, introductions, what do introductions across the disciplines have in common, anatomy of a body paragraph, transitions, tips for organizing your essay, counterargument, conclusions.

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  1. PDF Essay Outline Template

    Offer some more specific background information (as needed). 3. Provide the title of the piece and the author's name if the essay is about a specific book/poem/article/passage. C. Thesis Statement 1. State your topic and position. Remember that a thesis = claim + reasons. 2. Outline your main points and ideas.

  2. PDF The Basic Five Paragraph Essay: Format and Outline Worksheet

    There is an Outline worksheet on the back of this page to help you start planning the content, order and organization of your essay. Paragraph 1: Introduction -- If possible, open with an attention-getting device to interest the reader (perhaps a quote or question). Introduce the topic of your essay in general, and present some context for this ...

  3. PDF Essay Planning: Outlining with a Purpose

    Outlining is a vital part of the essay planning process. It allows the writer to understand how he or she will connect all the information to support the thesis statement and the claims of the paper. It also provides the writer with a space to manipulate ideas easily without needing to write complete paragraphs.

  4. PDF The Basic Outline of a Paper

    The following outline shows a basic format for most academic papers. No matter what length the paper needs to be, it should still follow the format of having an introduction, body, and conclusion. Read over what typically goes in each section of the paper. Use the back of this handout to outline information for your specific paper.

  5. How to Write an Outline for an Essay (Examples and Template)

    Compare and contrast essays examine the similarities and differences between two subjects, offering a balanced view. For example, a compare and contrast essay on "Online Learning vs. Traditional Classroom" might follow this outline: I. Introduction. A. Discuss the rise of online learning platforms.

  6. PDF Elements of an Essay

    In essays, arguments are almost always presented in a hierarchical relationship.3 The thesis statement is the highest level argument. Evidence, which may fall into categories that warrant their own paragraphs, is the next level. Details within each piece of evidence are the next level. You can display—and discover—relationships among your ...

  7. How to Write an Essay Outline

    An essay outline is a way of planning the structure of your essay before you start writing. It involves writing quick summary sentences or phrases for every point you will cover in each paragraph, giving you a picture of how your argument will unfold. You'll sometimes be asked to submit an essay outline as a separate assignment before you ...

  8. PDF Creating an outline

    Creating an Outline. This handout uses a very simple content and essay structure to show you a process you can use to create an essay outline starting with a topic for your essay and then building in the supporting ideas below it. Basic Principles. Developing an outline before you write your paper helps you make sure that your essay is ...

  9. PDF Essay Outline Template

    Essay Outline Template Introduction General Statement A short statement to give context to your reader on the subject you will cover Thesis Statement The main argument of your paper how Overview Your arguments you will use to support your thesis. Theses should be in the order you will present them in your essay Body Paragraph 1 Topic sentence

  10. PDF ACADEMIC ESSAY STRUCTURES & FORMATS

    Standard American argumentative essays begin with an introduction that gives a main point (thesis). The thesis is supported by a series of body paragraphs with sub-points, and the essay ends with a conclusion. Below is a visual representation of this structure, adapted from the Seattle University Writing Center; on the back is an example of the ...

  11. How to Write an Essay Outline + Essay Outline Examples

    Body Paragraph 2. Provide additional supporting details and evidence, as in this essay outline example. Topic Sentence: A shorter school year would save school districts millions of dollars per year. Detail Sentence 1: Districts could save money on energy costs by keeping schools closed longer.

  12. PDF Compare and Contrast Essay Outline Template

    Compare and Contrast Essay Outline Template A. Introduction a. Introduction to the broad topic b. Specific topic c. Thesis statement B. Body Paragraphs a. Body paragraph #1—First aspect that's similar or different i. Subject #1 1. Detail #1 2. Detail #2 ii. Subject #2 1. Detail #1 2. Detail #2 b.

  13. PDF Argumentative Essays

    This outline is designed to help students understand argumentative essay outlines in more detail. The following outline is appropriate if you are taking a position on the issue. Argumentative Essay: Point by Point This organization works well if you would like to persuade a reader of your own opinion on the ...

  14. PDF FIVE-PARAGRAPH ESSAY OUTLINE

    FIVE-PARAGRAPH ESSAY OUTLINE Writers who want their work to be clear and organized should follow consistent patterns in the way they ... [about three sentences if writing a five-paragraph essay] 3). Calls the reader to act, respond, or conduct further research on the topic Paragraph 1 Commentary (connects evidence to claim) Paragraph 2

  15. The Writing Center

    Outlining is a tool we use in the writing process to help organize our ideas, visualize our paper's potential structure, and to further flesh out and develop points. It allows the writer to understand how he or she will connect information to support the thesis statement and the claims of the paper. An outline provides the writer with a space ...

  16. Outline Template for Essay

    Literacy Essay Analysis Outline Example (udc.edu) Download. Narrative Essay Outline Format for PDF (rbgusd.k12.ca.us) Download. Persuasive Essay Outline Example (english-zone.com) Download. Research Proposal Essay Outline for PDF (alexandercollege.ca) Download. Sample Argumentative Essay Outline for PDF.

  17. PDF Outline Critical Essay

    Sample Outline for a Critical Essay. The following is a basic outline of a critical essay, the kind that might be written in a composition, literature, or film class. in this case, the writer is analyzing the meaning of particular symbols in a short story and film. Keep in mind that this is only one kind of possible organization; there are ...

  18. PDF A Basic Analytical or Argumentative Essay Outline

    A thesis for an analysis essay will explain the following: 1 Always ask your professor for help. They may have different recommendations for introductory styles and conclusions. Office hours are a great time to bring forth your writing ideas and share with your professors what you struggle with as you compose. II.

  19. 37 Outstanding Essay Outline Templates (Argumentative, Narrative

    Essay outlines can be used for any college essay, research papers, a contrast essay, speech writing, or an expository essay. There are a range of essay outline templates to use, and they vary depending on the style of essay you are writing. These include: Argumentative essay outline. Narrative essay outline. Contrast essay outline.

  20. Types of Outlines

    This outline is most often used when preparing a traditional essay. Select the "Sample Outlines" PDF in the Media Box above to download the sample of this outline. Decimal Outlines. The decimal outline is similar in format to the alphanumeric outline. The added benefit is a system of decimal notation that clearly shows how every level of the ...

  21. PDF Argumentative Essay Outline

    Argumentative Essay Outline (Claim) Directions: Use this outline as a "road map" to write your essay. If you need more examples or sentence starters, use page 2 to help you! 1) Introduction/Claim (One paragraph) • Start with a hook or attention getting sentence.

  22. PDF Writing an Expository Essay

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  23. Strategies for Essay Writing: Downloadable PDFs

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