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The purpose of an essay outline is to order the presentation of your information, data, evidence, analysis, etc. Without an outline to guide your writing, you will be susceptible to incoherence and lack of organizational structure, and the purpose for the essay will not have been achieved.

Topic and purpose will provide direction for your outline.  Obviously, your topic and purpose will be introduced in your introduction, but it will guide the order in which you present your content.  If, for example, you are comparing and contrasting democracy in the U.S. and democracy in the United Kingdom, there will be several aspects to be covered.  Each aspect, such as elections, legislative bodies, executive functions, etc., will be a major item in your outline and separated by Roman numerals.  Under those Roman numerals, will be alphabet letters for the details of each of the main headings.  If, on the other hand, you are preparing a persuasive work, you will need to make each main heading (or Roman numeral) relate to an aspect of your argument, beginning with the most substantial and moving in descending order of importance.  The more detail you can place under your large headings, the easier it will be to ultimately compose your piece.  The detail will be from your own knowledge, from research you have conducted, etc.

A traditional essay outline template uses Roman numerals, Capital letters, numbers and then small alphabet letters, as follows:





If one must become more detailed, then numbers and letters with right parentheticals are used.  In more contemporary an informal essay outline format, students often use dashes, stars, and other characters to provide an ordered list of content.  When an outline is purely for student use, and does not have to be submitted to an instructor with the completed work, any system that works for the student is best.

The best “teacher” regarding how to write an essay outline is often a model or an example for a work to be written.  Let us return, then, to the comparison/contrast essay on democracy in the U.S. and the UK.  An outline, using the traditional essay outline template would perhaps look like this:

I. Introduction:  Comparison/Contrast of Democracy in the U.S. and UK
II. Legislative Branch

A. U.S. Congress

1. Senate – Membership
2. House of Representatives – Membership
3. Terms/Election Procedures

B. Parliament

1. House of Lords – Membership
2. House of Commons – Membership
3. Terms/Elections

III. Executive Branch

A. U.S. – President/Vice-President

1. Election Procedures
2. Terms of Office
3. Powers


1. King/Queen
2. Prime Minister
3. Powers/Terms of Office

As you can see, this is simply a partial outline for the topic and purpose of this piece for writing.  You can, however, see the general order of the headings and important details within each of those headings.  This provides a logical, sequential, and coherent method by which the work may ultimately be composed and will allow the writer to remain focused on the topic at hand. 

For complex topics, the essay outline template will go deeper.  If, for example, I wanted to put in detail about the Prime Minister position in the UK, I would add small alphabet letters to indicate that s/he is the leader of the political party that has the majority of seats in the House of Commons. Thus, the Prime Minister is not directly elected by the people as is the President of the United States.  On the other hand, if I were to provide detail about the Presidential election in the United States, I would of course provide a small letter “a” under “election procedures” and provide details of the Electoral College process. The amount of detail you provide in your outline will usually depend upon the complexity of the topic – the more complex, the more detail you will place in the outline levels, so that you do not omit important information.

If you are to submit an outline with your essay or paper, be certain to use the formal essay outline format that is universally acceptable in academia.  If the outline is only for your personal use, certainly you should use whatever format works best for your needs.

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