Planning and Outlining

(Christchurch Cathedral, after the devastating 2011 earthquake)


Now that you’ve done some research, it’s time to plan your essay! You’ll need both an outline and a rough idea of what your argument or thesis will be. Don’t get stressed out if you don’t know exactly what your essay is going to say. The planning stage is not like drawing a precise map. It’s more like a rough sketch. Once you start painting the details, the whole picture will come into focus.

Thesis Statements

The thesis statement is your main argument. It typically comes at the end of the introduction.

The thesis encompasses everything in your essay. That’s why it needs to be quite broad. Yet if it’s too general then the reader will not read on. Compare, for instance, the following statements (arranged from most to least detailed):

One of the factors that led to the Dust Bowl was overuse of the disc plough.

The Dust Bowl of the 1930s was caused by a number of factors, including over-farming, changes in technology, and a lack of precipitation. By analyzing these causes we can try to prevent droughts in the future.

The Dust Bowl was a major disaster for the United States.

The middle thesis is best. It is both specific and general, and makes the reader excited to learn something new and interesting.

Need some more practice? Try our Thesis Statement Exercise and visit our separate page on thesis statements,


Preparing an outline is a great way to plan your essay. The traditional way to organize information is to use roman numerals for the main sections, followed by capital letters for sub-points. If you want to zoom in even more, you use lower case roman numerals, followed by lower case letters.

Here is an example of how a student has started an outline for an essay about a specific natural disaster:

I. Introduction: Indian Ocean Tsunami (2004)

A. Vivid description from a survivor

B. Explanation of Importance

C. Thesis: The Indian Ocean Tsunami taught the world the importance of early warning systems and proper education about natural disasters.

II. Impact of the disaster

A. Damage

i. Number of dead and injured

a. Statistics for individual countries

b. Comparison with relative distance from the epicentre

ii. Financial cost of the disaster

B. Other types of impact

III. How a tsunami works

IV. What made this one so deadly

V. International response

VI. Future response and preparedness

VII. Conclusion

A lot of the sections still need to be fleshed out, but this is a good start.

Remember that a section can be more than one paragraph and that it’s a good idea to include your thesis statement. As you develop your outline, try to think about whether your points connect to each other and tell a single story.

Finally, it’s up to you how detailed you want to get. If you want to add some quotations or examples, that’s great. Just make sure the main structure of your essay is clear.


  • Use colour coding to distinguish the various levels of organization
  • Make your outline with Powerpoint and place each section (including sub points) on a separate slide
  • Ask another student to review your outline to see if it makes sense




Outlines are an effective way to organize your ideas. They provide structure and direction, they organize your thoughts, and they free your mind to focus on one section at a time. Outlines are a key tool for any writer, and it’s good to know how to create them quickly.

Outline Structure

You can normally use whatever outline structure suits you. The main thing is to differentiate between the various levels of organization. As an example, here’s an outline that uses a classic hierarchy:

Topic: A History of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)

I. Introduction

II. The Original 1994 Agreement

A. Key Figures

i. Reagan’s idea

ii. Mulroney’s support

a. Liberal and NDP opposition

iii. Carlos Salinas de Gortari’s contribution

B. Provisions and Exceptions

III. Later Additions

IV. Notable Disputes

V. Trump’s Protectionism

VI. The Future of NAFTA

VII. Conclusion

As you can see, this is only a partial outline, as many of the sections can use further subdivision. It should nevertheless indicate how you can create a clear outline structure. In this case we’ve used letters and roman numerals, but you can use other formats too.

Tips for Effective Outlines

While an outline provides structure, it can easily remain static and disjointed. To make it come alive we suggest you do the following:

  • Include a rough description of your thesis, so you can check if all your points relate back.
  • Jot down some notes about how your sections connect to each other.
  • Be ready to modify your outline so that your points flow logically
  • Zoom in far enough that you have a sense of what examples and evidence you might use. If you have too much material you may need to add new points to your list.
  • Format the list in a way that works for you (you can add colour, change the font type and size, modify the indentation, etc.)
  • Ask a friend if the outline seems clear and interesting