High School English

Sample Essay Outlines


What does a well-designed, carefully argued essay look like when stripped to its essentials? The samples below, courtesy of Professor Ian Johnston of Malaspina University College, show the outlines of three relatively short essays. Zeitgeist Literature students begin to write 1000-word essays in English III: American Literature. Professor Johnston demonstrates each element-- focus, thesis, and topic sentences that introduce supporting arguments-- that should be in an essay of this sort. Be sure to notice the difference between Focus 1 and Focus 2: The first is fairly general; the second identifies the angle that the writer will argue.

In order to fully understand how the outlines work, how the arguments are constructed, and how the transitions between arguments are framed, I suggest copying each sample. Copying is a time-tested method of multi-sensory learning that has been practiced since ancient times. Most recently, it has been advocated by homeschoolers who follow the Charlotte Mason or classical methods of teaching, and it is once again proving to be an effective learning tool.

[Professor Johnston] Here are some sample outlines for argumentative and interpretative essays on texts which present arguments. The assumption is that these are short essays of about 1000 words (i.e., four or five paragraphs). Notice how the outline narrows the focus to something very specific, how the thesis presents an argumentative opinion about that focus, and then how the topic sentences (other than the ones immediately after the introductory paragraph which define the issue further) all develop that thesis (and do not simply retell the argument).

TS = Topic Sentence

Essay A

General Subject: Hobbes's argument in the Leviathan
Focus 1: Hobbes's concept of sovereignty
Focus 2: Hobbes concept of sovereignty: the dangers to the state of a corrupt monarch.

Thesis: One of the major questions one wants to raise about Hobbes's vision of the modern state is his insistence that the total power belongs to the sovereign. This would seem, on the face of it, a dangerous idea which would lead away from the very things Hobbes believes justify the establishment of the commonwealth in the first place.

TS 1: Before analyzing Hobbes's view of sovereignty, we should quickly review how he comes to define it the way he does. (Paragraph defines Hobbes's concept: this paragraph is defining the issue, not starting the argument)

TS 2: This concept obviously has some merits within the context of Hobbes's argument. (Paragraph argues that this concept makes sense in some respects)

TS 3: However, the first question one would want to raise about it is this: How is the commonwealth to be protected from the corruption of the sovereign? (Paragraph goes on to argue that this is a real danger, especially given Hobbes's view of human nature)

TS 4: There are two reasonable ways in which Hobbes seeks to answer this charge. (Paragraph goes on to argue that Hobbes's case takes care of this objection to some extent).

TS 5: However, these aspects of Hobbes's argument are problematic. (Paragraph goes on to argue that Hobbes's defence of this charge would not be entirely satisfactory)

TS 6: To appreciate these problem let us consider a typical case of a corrupt sovereign. (Paragraph uses a counterexample to consolidate the points made above).

Conclusion: The dangers of a corrupt sovereign are clearly something Hobbes takes into account. However, we have good reason to wonder about how satisfactory his treatment of this potential objection might be. (Paragraph sums up the argument)

Essay B

General Subject: Plato's Republic
Focus 1: Plato's views on art in Book X
Focus 2: Plato's views on art: censorship by the state

Thesis: Plato's discussion of censorship of art is of particular interest. It raises some key issues about the corrupting influence of certain forms of art, questions as much alive today as at the time this text first appeared.

TS 1: One key objection to certain forms of art raised by Socrates is that it encourages those aspects of the human psyche detrimental to the harmony necessary to proper living. This point arises naturally out of Socrates's conception of the human soul and, from a common sense point of view, is quite persuasive. (Paragraph argues that this point about art has a certain justification for the reasons Socrates brings up)

TS 2: A second reason for censorship is the particularly interesting point that debased art corrupts the understanding. Again, this point has considerable merit. (Paragraph argues that this defence of censorship is also persuasive)

TS 3: Most of us would still have some trouble agreeing with such censorship. (Paragraph brings to bear some objections to Plato's recommendations)

TS 4: However, if we recall the nature of those in charge of the censorship in Plato's Republic, perhaps we would find it much easier to accept the practice. (Paragraph gives Plato a chance to argue a response to the objections given in the previous paragraph)

Conclusion: Many discussions of the question of censorship today continue to take place within the framework defined by Plato in this section of the Republic. (Paragraph goes on to summarize the argument and restate the thesis)

Essay C

General Subject: John Stuart Mill's On Liberty
Focus 1: Mill's concept of open free discussion
Focus 2: Mill's concept of open free discussion: some problems

Thesis: While justly famous as an eloquent statement of liberal principles, Mill's key concept of free and open discussion raises some important questions which Mill does not address.

TS 1: The first and most obvious question is this: Where are such free discussions to take place? (Paragraph argues that Mill's society does not have enough open places for discussion).

TS 2: A related criticism calls attention to those who are excluded from such forums. Mill's argument does not seem to have much place for them. (Paragraph argues that many people will lack the qualifications to take part).

TS 3: In defense of Mill, one might argue that these two objections are not lethal: there are ways of dealing with them in the context of his presentation. (Paragraph acknowledges the opposition and tries to answer the objections using Mill's theory).

TS 4: This sounds all very well in theory, but in practice many people are going to be excluded. That is clear from the way Mill insists the debates should take place. (Paragraph argues that the defense of Mill in the previous paragraph is not adequate).

TS 5: It doesn't take much imagination to visualize a society which implements Mill's recommendations and yet excludes a majority of its citizens from public forums. (Paragraph uses a counterexample).

Conclusion: The strength of Mill's case is the appeal of a rational liberal democracy, but its weaknesses stem from the same source. (Paragraph goes on to sum up the argument)

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