Once you have chosen a topic and method of development for an essay, you’re ready to write, right? Not quite yet. You need a plan – an outline – so you can present your ideas clearly and coherently. This chapter discusses all three outline forms and how they help bring your ideas together to create the first draft of your essay.

Covered in This Chapter

  • Formal topic outline. Uses key words or phrases to list the progression of your essay.
  • Sentence outline. Lists the key points and the topic sentences for the developmental paragraphs of your essay.
  • 1-2-3 outline. Includes the thesis statement and three key points to discuss.
  • In-class essay exam. Uses an abbreviated 1-2-3 process to organize your answers.

Formal Topic Outline

A formal topic outline uses keywords or phrases to list the progression of your essay. Formal topic outlines are rarely used for a writer’s own purposes, but since they often are requested by teachers, it’s worthwhile to know what they are and how they should be presented.

A standard formal topic outline takes this form:

  • 1. Introduction
  • 2. 1st Point
    • A. Supporting details for 1st point
      • 1. Supporting details for A
        • a. Supporting detail for A.1
        • b. Supporting detail forA.1
      • 2. Further supporting details for A
        • a. Supporting detail for A.2
        • b. Supporting detail for A.2
      • 3. Further supporting details forA
    • B. Further supporting details for 1st point
  • 2nd Point

The most important items you are covering in your paper are those at the far left of your outline. In the previous example, these would be the Introduction, 1st Point, 2nd Point, and so on.

For each 1 you need a 2, and for each A you need a B. If there is only one item, there’s no need to make a numbered or lettered entry – as in II.A.3. in our formal topic outline example (no a. or b. needed, because only one point is made).

Let’s take a look at an actual formal topic outline. Say the prompt given by the teacher is “Should physical education be mandatory in school?” Your thesis statement might be “PE should be mandatory in school,” which would be stated at the end of your introductory paragraph. A portion of your formal topic outline would look like this:

  • I. Introduction
  • II. Mental benefits of PE
    • A. Rests mind
      • 1.Opens mind
        • a. Absorbs more
        • b. Retains more
      • 2. Brings relief
        • a. Rests
        • b. Time to understand
    • B. Future benefits

This outline would certainly be sufficient, but you would still have to come up with topic sentences and more information.

Sentence Outline

A more complete outline, and often a more useful one, is the sentence out- line. Creating it takes a little longer, but when you’re finished, it almost writes the paper for you – almost. Here is an example of a sentence outline, using the same thesis statement as earlier, “PE should be mandatory in school.”

  • I. Introduction
  • II. PE offers some real benefits beyond exercise.
    • A. Taking a break can clear the mind.
      • 1. A rested mind can absorb more.
      • 2. A rested mind can also retain more.
    • B. Exercising the body brings relief to the whole system.
      • 1. Exercise helps renew attention.
      • 2. Exercise gives time to understand.
  • III. PE offers benefits in the future also.

Notice that in the formal topic outline, there are no periods, because the items are not sentences. The sentences in your sentence outline are the topic sentences for the paragraphs of your essay.

A topic sentence, usually the first sentence in each developmental paragraph, has the same structure as the thesis statement. It requires a subject and a controlling idea, which you will develop in that paragraph. So, the thesis statement gives the subject and controlling idea for the whole essay, while the topic sentence gives the subject and controlling idea for each developmental paragraph.


Often, a formal topic or sentence outline is not appropriate for your needs. Three situations where a formal topic or sentence outline might not be needed are:

  • An outline is not required.
  • You have to write an essay in class or under exam conditions.
  • You feel you know what you want to say and don’t need an outline.

Even in these situations, you still need some kind of plan to organize your thoughts. This is where an informal outline, called the 1-2-3 outline, can be your best choice. The process of building the 1-2-3 outline is invaluable for both in-class essays and those you do outside of class, and it will give you the foundation for your first draft.

In-Class Essays

These can be daunting. You haven’t had time to think about the subject and you may feel you don’t even know what you do, in fact, know. Remember, everyone else is in the same place. The worst thing you can do is start writ- ing immediately. Take a few minutes to go over the ideas in your mind. Then see if you can come up with three things to discuss in your essay. Write them down. That’s important; you think you’ll remember, but actually see- ing those ideas will keep you on track. With those three ideas, you’ve just developed an abbreviated outline, and it will give you the direction for what you want to say.

Let’s look at our PE question, “Should PE be mandatory in school?” You decide the answer is that it should be mandatory in school. You could write down your thesis statement, “PE can be very beneficial to most students” and these three points:

1. Relax mind

2. Relax body

3. Future benefits

Now you’re ready to write a coherent essay because you know where you’re going.

At-Home Essays

When your essay is a homework assignment (rather than an in-class assignment) you have more time to carefully develop and write your essay, but usually not as much time as you want. This is where the 1-2-3 process can help you make the best use of your time.Start with your thesis statement and think of three things that will prove your assertion. Then, list the topic sentences you will use to develop each idea. Often that can be enough to get you started. You can go a step further,and list the three points you want to make in each paragraph. You’ll wind up with something like this:

PE can be beneficial for most students. (thesis statement)

PE has certain physical benefits. (topic sentence for 1st developmental paragraph)

PE also has mental benefits. (topic sentence for 2nd developmental paragraph)

PE, moreover, has future benefits. (topic sentence for 3rd develop- mental paragraph)

In-Class Essay Exam

It is important to realize that an essay exam is not an essay. In an essay exam you are required to answer a question. Answer the question in the first sentence and list the three points you will use to develop your answer. When you answer the question in the first sentence, the teacher sees that you know the answer. In the rest of the answer, you develop the three points you’ve listed, and you’re almost through. A final sentence ends the answer. Whether your answer needs to be one paragraph or several, the format would be the same.

Instead of presenting you with a question the teacher tells you to dis- cuss a topic, such as “Discuss the symbolism in Hemingway’s ‘Hills Like White Elephants’?”

Turn the topic/prompt into a question: “How does Hemingway use symbolism in this story?” Your first sentence might be:

Hemingway uses symbolism in “Hills Like White Elephants” to show the state of the world, the problem for the man, and the problem for the woman.

Now you have a clear structure to write a clear answer.

Practice Outlines

Now that you’ve learned how to start with an outline and develop an essay – or a paragraph – let’s practice creating a brief 1-2-3 outline. Read the narration paragraph here and fill in the blanks in the outline template that follows.

I’ll always remember Amsterdam. My Mom and I spent three days in Amsterdam and did most of the tourist things. We visited the Van Gogh Museum and were quite impressed. We stopped at shops and headed to the Anne Frank House. Seeing that was a remarkable experience. But what happened next was more memorable. As we walked, my Mom tripped and fell into the canal. And she doesn’t swim. Fortunately, I do. I jumped in, grabbed her by the shoulders, and swam her back to the wall, where several people helped us out of the water. Mom said she was very, very glad I had been there to save her life.

I. (topic sentence)

A. (1st point)

B. (2nd point)

C. (3rd point)

II. (conclusion)

Next Steps

Now that you have learned how to create an effective outline, let’s start using it to actually write an essay. The next step is your first draft.