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How to Structure an Essay | Tips & Templates

Published on September 18, 2020 by Jack Caulfield . Revised on July 23, 2023.

The basic structure of an essay always consists of an introduction , a body , and a conclusion . But for many students, the most difficult part of structuring an essay is deciding how to organize information within the body.

Table of contents

The basics of essay structure, chronological structure, compare-and-contrast structure, problems-methods-solutions structure, signposting to clarify your structure, other interesting articles, frequently asked questions about essay structure.

There are two main things to keep in mind when working on your essay structure: making sure to include the right information in each part, and deciding how you’ll organize the information within the body.

Parts of an essay

The three parts that make up all essays are described in the table below.

Order of information

You’ll also have to consider how to present information within the body. There are a few general principles that can guide you here.

The first is that your argument should move from the simplest claim to the most complex . The body of a good argumentative essay often begins with simple and widely accepted claims, and then moves towards more complex and contentious ones.

For example, you might begin by describing a generally accepted philosophical concept, and then apply it to a new topic. The grounding in the general concept will allow the reader to understand your unique application of it.

The second principle is that background information should appear towards the beginning of your essay . General background is presented in the introduction. If you have additional background to present, this information will usually come at the start of the body.

The third principle is that everything in your essay should be relevant to the thesis . Ask yourself whether each piece of information advances your argument or provides necessary background. And make sure that the text clearly expresses each piece of information’s relevance.

The sections below present several organizational templates for essays: the chronological approach, the compare-and-contrast approach, and the problems-methods-solutions approach.

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The chronological approach (sometimes called the cause-and-effect approach) is probably the simplest way to structure an essay. It just means discussing events in the order in which they occurred, discussing how they are related (i.e. the cause and effect involved) as you go.

A chronological approach can be useful when your essay is about a series of events. Don’t rule out other approaches, though—even when the chronological approach is the obvious one, you might be able to bring out more with a different structure.

Explore the tabs below to see a general template and a specific example outline from an essay on the invention of the printing press.

  • Thesis statement
  • Discussion of event/period
  • Consequences
  • Importance of topic
  • Strong closing statement
  • Claim that the printing press marks the end of the Middle Ages
  • Background on the low levels of literacy before the printing press
  • Thesis statement: The invention of the printing press increased circulation of information in Europe, paving the way for the Reformation
  • High levels of illiteracy in medieval Europe
  • Literacy and thus knowledge and education were mainly the domain of religious and political elites
  • Consequence: this discouraged political and religious change
  • Invention of the printing press in 1440 by Johannes Gutenberg
  • Implications of the new technology for book production
  • Consequence: Rapid spread of the technology and the printing of the Gutenberg Bible
  • Trend for translating the Bible into vernacular languages during the years following the printing press’s invention
  • Luther’s own translation of the Bible during the Reformation
  • Consequence: 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

Essays with two or more main subjects are often structured around comparing and contrasting . For example, a literary analysis essay might compare two different texts, and an argumentative essay might compare the strengths of different arguments.

There are two main ways of structuring a compare-and-contrast essay: the alternating method, and the block method.


In the alternating method, each paragraph compares your subjects in terms of a specific point of comparison. These points of comparison are therefore what defines each paragraph.

The tabs below show a general template for this structure, and a specific example for an essay comparing and contrasting distance learning with traditional classroom learning.

  • Synthesis of arguments
  • Topical relevance of distance learning in lockdown
  • Increasing prevalence of distance learning over the last decade
  • Thesis statement: While distance learning has certain advantages, it introduces multiple new accessibility issues that must be addressed for it to be as effective as classroom learning
  • Classroom learning: Ease of identifying difficulties and privately discussing them
  • Distance learning: Difficulty of noticing and unobtrusively helping
  • Classroom learning: Difficulties accessing the classroom (disability, distance travelled from home)
  • Distance learning: Difficulties with online work (lack of tech literacy, unreliable connection, distractions)
  • Classroom learning: Tends to encourage personal engagement among students and with teacher, more relaxed social environment
  • Distance learning: Greater ability to reach out to teacher privately
  • Sum up, emphasize that distance learning introduces more difficulties than it solves
  • Stress the importance of addressing issues with distance learning as it becomes increasingly common
  • Distance learning may prove to be the future, but it still has a long way to go

In the block method, each subject is covered all in one go, potentially across multiple paragraphs. For example, you might write two paragraphs about your first subject and then two about your second subject, making comparisons back to the first.

The tabs again show a general template, followed by another essay on distance learning, this time with the body structured in blocks.

  • Point 1 (compare)
  • Point 2 (compare)
  • Point 3 (compare)
  • Point 4 (compare)
  • Advantages: Flexibility, accessibility
  • Disadvantages: Discomfort, challenges for those with poor internet or tech literacy
  • Advantages: Potential for teacher to discuss issues with a student in a separate private call
  • Disadvantages: Difficulty of identifying struggling students and aiding them unobtrusively, lack of personal interaction among students
  • Advantages: More accessible to those with low tech literacy, equality of all sharing one learning environment
  • Disadvantages: Students must live close enough to attend, commutes may vary, classrooms not always accessible for disabled students
  • Advantages: Ease of picking up on signs a student is struggling, more personal interaction among students
  • Disadvantages: May be harder for students to approach teacher privately in person to raise issues

An essay that concerns a specific problem (practical or theoretical) may be structured according to the problems-methods-solutions approach.

This is just what it sounds like: You define the problem, characterize a method or theory that may solve it, and finally analyze the problem, using this method or theory to arrive at a solution. If the problem is theoretical, the solution might be the analysis you present in the essay itself; otherwise, you might just present a proposed solution.

The tabs below show a template for this structure and an example outline for an essay about the problem of fake news.

  • Introduce the problem
  • Provide background
  • Describe your approach to solving it
  • Define the problem precisely
  • Describe why it’s important
  • Indicate previous approaches to the problem
  • Present your new approach, and why it’s better
  • Apply the new method or theory to the problem
  • Indicate the solution you arrive at by doing so
  • Assess (potential or actual) effectiveness of solution
  • Describe the implications
  • Problem: The growth of “fake news” online
  • Prevalence of polarized/conspiracy-focused news sources online
  • Thesis statement: Rather than attempting to stamp out online fake news through social media moderation, an effective approach to combating it must work with educational institutions to improve media literacy
  • Definition: Deliberate disinformation designed to spread virally online
  • Popularization of the term, growth of the phenomenon
  • Previous approaches: Labeling and moderation on social media platforms
  • Critique: This approach feeds conspiracies; the real solution is to improve media literacy so users can better identify fake news
  • Greater emphasis should be placed on media literacy education in schools
  • This allows people to assess news sources independently, rather than just being told which ones to trust
  • This is a long-term solution but could be highly effective
  • It would require significant organization and investment, but would equip people to judge news sources more effectively
  • Rather than trying to contain the spread of fake news, we must teach the next generation not to fall for it

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writing essays outline

Signposting means guiding the reader through your essay with language that describes or hints at the structure of what follows.  It can help you clarify your structure for yourself as well as helping your reader follow your ideas.

The essay overview

In longer essays whose body is split into multiple named sections, the introduction often ends with an overview of the rest of the essay. This gives a brief description of the main idea or argument of each section.

The overview allows the reader to immediately understand what will be covered in the essay and in what order. Though it describes what  comes later in the text, it is generally written in the present tense . The following example is from a literary analysis essay on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein .


Transition words and phrases are used throughout all good essays to link together different ideas. They help guide the reader through your text, and an essay that uses them effectively will be much easier to follow.

Various different relationships can be expressed by transition words, as shown in this example.

Because Hitler failed to respond to the British ultimatum, France and the UK declared war on Germany. Although it was an outcome the Allies had hoped to avoid, they were prepared to back up their ultimatum in order to combat the existential threat posed by the Third Reich.

Transition sentences may be included to transition between different paragraphs or sections of an essay. A good transition sentence moves the reader on to the next topic while indicating how it relates to the previous one.

… Distance learning, then, seems to improve accessibility in some ways while representing a step backwards in others.

However , considering the issue of personal interaction among students presents a different picture.

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!

  • Ad hominem fallacy
  • Post hoc fallacy
  • Appeal to authority fallacy
  • False cause fallacy
  • Sunk cost fallacy

College essays

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  • Write a College Essay
  • Write a Diversity Essay
  • College Essay Format & Structure
  • Comparing and Contrasting in an Essay

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The structure of an essay is divided into an introduction that presents your topic and thesis statement , a body containing your in-depth analysis and arguments, and a conclusion wrapping up your ideas.

The structure of the body is flexible, but you should always spend some time thinking about how you can organize your essay to best serve your ideas.

An essay isn’t just a loose collection of facts and ideas. Instead, it should be centered on an overarching argument (summarized in your thesis statement ) that every part of the essay relates to.

The way you structure your essay is crucial to presenting your argument coherently. A well-structured essay helps your reader follow the logic of your ideas and understand your overall point.

Comparisons in essays are generally structured in one of two ways:

  • The alternating method, where you compare your subjects side by side according to one specific aspect at a time.
  • The block method, where you cover each subject separately in its entirety.

It’s also possible to combine both methods, for example by writing a full paragraph on each of your topics and then a final paragraph contrasting the two according to a specific metric.

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 Outline in 5 Steps

Matt Ellis

An outline is an organizational tool you use to keep track of all the topics and points you plan to include in a piece of writing. Knowing how to make an outline is a great advantage when you’re doing any kind of writing, from research papers to creative writing. 

Still, many students and writers don’t know how to do an outline or understand the proper outline format. So below, we explain how to write an outline, with a step-by-step guide and a formal outline example. But first, let’s start with a simple question: What does it mean to “make an outline”?

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What is an outline in writing?

An outline is like a blueprint for writing . Simple outlines list the topics you plan to cover and the order they will go in. Outlines are usually broken up by paragraphs along with their supporting details like statistical data or logical evidence. When it’s time to write the first draft, the writer simply follows the outline so they know what to write about and in what order. 

Why create an outline?

Topic outlines let you focus exclusively on the structure and fitting everything in the right place. That way, when you’re writing the first draft, you can focus on details like sentence structure and clarity without getting distracted by the big picture. 

Knowing how to write an outline for a paper is particularly important if you want to keep track of your prior research. When outlining, you can decide the best way to put your findings into sections and paragraphs. The outline not only organizes your research but also ensures you don’t forget anything when writing the first draft. 

Outline structure: What is the outline format?

Easy outlines are structured by paragraph : You list the topic of each paragraph along with a few bullet points about what goes into that paragraph. This allows you to easily rearrange the order of the paragraphs to find the perfect arrangement before you begin writing. 

The standard outline format uses an alphanumeric system, which alternates letters and numerals at the start of each section. 

  • Main topics like sections or chapters are listed as Roman numerals. 
  • Paragraphs are usually listed as capital letters.
  • Points and subtopics within a paragraph are listed as Arabic numerals.
  • Specific details are listed as lower-case letters.

The content of the outline is generally written in blurbs—you don’t need to use complete sentences, although if you’re working as a team, using full sentences can help other people understand your ideas better and vice versa. 

Standard outline format has a distinct indentation. Roman numeral lines are not indented, capital letter lines are indented once, Arabic numeral lines are indented twice, and lower-case letter lines are indented three times. 

So you can see what an outline should look like, here’s an example of a writing outline for this section of this article. 

III. Outline structure

A. Overview about outline structure 

1. explain basic structure of outline

2. reiterate how outlines help with paragraph order

B. Alphanumeric system

1. introduce the alphanumeric system

a. bullet list of each line in alphanumeric system

C. Content written in blurbs

1. exceptions for sharing with teams

D. Outline indentation

E. Outline example

1. example outline of this section

As you can see, you use only the lines you need—not every paragraph needs markers for subtopics, and not every subtopic needs specific details. 

It’s also worth noting that there is no official structure for outlining. For example, if you’re using longer paragraphs, you might want to use Roman numerals as the paragraph marker. The above example is simply the most common and easiest format to follow, but you’re free to structure your outline however seems most reasonable to you. 

Outline format example: What does an outline look like? 

Knowing how to create an outline for an essay or another piece of writing is impossible if you don’t know what an outline looks like. 

We’ve already written articles about essay outlines and argumentative essay outlines in particular, but that doesn’t cover everything. So below we’ve included an outline example of a five-paragraph essay comparing the pros and cons of social media. 

I. Does the harm of social media outweigh the benefits?

A. Introduction

1. briefly mention background of social media

a. specific examples like Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube

2. explain how social media is a major part of modern people’s lives

3. end with a teaser about whether or not social media is actually good

B. The advantages of social media

1. increased socialization

a. “Many respondents in this study used their social networks to make friends, chat with them, conduct research, and share news or information.” ( Awareness and Usage of Social Media study)

2. raise awareness of social issues

a. list causes that benefited from social media ( Maryville article ) 

3. entertainment value

C. The disadvantages of social media

1. negative effect on self-esteem

a. Facebook knowingly harming teenage girls ( Guardian article )

2. echo chamber effect

a.“Social media may limit the exposure to diverse perspectives and favor the formation of groups of like-minded users framing and reinforcing a shared narrative, that is, echo chambers.” ( The echo chamber effect on social media study)

D. It’s how you use it

1. research shows both good and bad effects

a. “. . . some research finds that SNS use and self-esteem are negatively associated, while some find that they are positively associated.” ( Social networking site use and self-esteem study)

2. ways to mitigate disadvantages

a. limit time on social media per day

b. choose only positive platforms

c. learn to recognize and avoid triggers

E. Conclusion

1. draw parallels to TV 

a. TV can also be positive or negative depending on usage

2. reiterate healthy methods for social media use

How to write an outline in 5 steps

Want to know how to create an outline for an essay, academic paper, or even a piece of creative writing? Here’s how to make an outline in five simple, easy-to-follow steps. 

1 Research and gather sources

The first step in any writing process is preparation. For academic writing , that involves researching and collecting evidence to back up your thesis. For creative writing , that means brainstorming and coming up with ideas. 

Once you know what you want to write about, you can start to plan your outline. You can always add new content later if inspiration strikes you, but generally the more content you prepare at the beginning, the smoother the rest of the writing process will go. 

2 Make a list of the topics you want to cover

When you know what you want to write, whether it’s a researched argument or creative content, the next step is to organize it. The most common and effective way to organize topics is by paragraph. 

Take all your research or creative ideas and group them into separate topics. Remember that each paragraph should deal with only one main topic, so be sure to group everything with their related themes. Don’t forget to connect details like statistical data to their most relevant paragraph topic. 

3   Consider the best order to discuss the topics

By now you should have a scattered list of topics, ideally divided by paragraph. Your next step is to decide the optimal order the paragraphs should go in. 

Consider whether a topic requires some background information or if the reader will understand it right away. Some topics should be discussed early to prepare the reader for more advanced topics later on. If you’re having trouble deciding, chronological order also works fine. 

Make the backbone of your outline by putting the topics in the order you think will work best. Think of this as the first draft of your outline—you’ll be able to move things around later if you don’t like how it’s organized. 

4 Fill in the details

When you’re satisfied with the structure of your paragraphs, you can start filling in supporting details like quotes and references to sources. As you may have noticed from the standard outline format example above, it’s helpful to include direct quotes and source material links directly in the outline. This makes it easier to find the source material when you’re writing the first draft—and gives you one less thing to worry about. 

After you create a working outline, you can review it for areas to improve. Sometimes, when you see your topics listed out, you recognize problematic areas. Maybe you don’t have enough evidence for certain points, or maybe your writing would flow better if the paragraph order was rearranged. 

It can be helpful to have someone else review the outline to notice things you haven’t, although that’s not always necessary. Sleeping on it, or taking a fresh look at your outline after a rest,  can also help you notice problems you missed before. 

Outline FAQs

What is an outline.

An outline is a supportive document for organizing all the topics in a piece of writing before the first draft. Think of an outline as a blueprint; a writer can simply follow the outline as they write so they don’t forget to include anything. 

When should you use an outline?

Outlines are useful for all forms of writing, from academic papers to creative writing. They help compartmentalize the stages of the writing process: When writing the outline, you can focus exclusively on the structure and big picture; when writing the first draft, you can focus on writing details without being distracted by organizational concerns. 

What are the parts of an outline?

Typically, outlines are broken up into sections and paragraphs, with the relevant points or evidence listed under their respective topics. This makes it easy for writers to rearrange the paragraph order if they decide to change the structure. 

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  1. How to Write an Essay Outline

    Examples of essay outlines Argumentative essay outline. This outline is for a short argumentative essay evaluating the internet’s impact on... Expository essay outline. This is the outline for an expository essay describing how the invention of the printing press... Literary analysis essay outline. ...

  2. How to Structure an Essay

    Published on September 18, 2020 by Jack Caulfield . Revised on July 23, 2023. The basic structure of an essay always consists of an introduction, a body, and a conclusion. But for many students, the most difficult part of structuring an essay is deciding how to organize information within the body.

  3. Essay Outline Template

    When writing an academic essay, an outline can help you structure and plan your arguments and ideas, while creating a guide for how to organize your paragraphs. Almost all essays can follow the same basic structure with variations based on the number of paragraphs or specific requirements.

  4. How to Write an Outline in 5 Steps, with Examples

    How to write an outline in 5 steps 1 Research and gather sources. The first step in any writing process is preparation. For academic writing, that involves... 2 Make a list of the topics you want to cover. When you know what you want to write, whether it’s a researched argument... 3 Consider the ...