Research Paper Outline Format, Examples, and Templates

An outline is an ordered list of the topics covered in a research paper. It is useful to both writer and reader. The writer who writes from an outline is less likely to stray from the point or to commit a structural error—overdeveloping one topic while skimping on another, for example. The reader, in turn, benefits from the outline in the form of a complete and detailed table of contents.

Conventional Research Paper Outline Format

The conventions of formal outlining require that main ideas be designated by Roman numerals (I, II, III, IV, and so on). Sub-ideas branching off from the main ideas are designated by capital letters (A, B, C, D, and so on). Subdivisions of these sub-ideas are designated by Arabic numerals (1, 2, 3, 4, and so on). And minor ideas are designated by lowercase letters (a, b, c, d, and so on). Here is an example of the proper form of an outline:

I. Main idea

A. Sub-idea

B. Sub-idea

1. Division of a sub-idea

2. Division of a sub-idea

a. Minor idea

b. Minor idea

II. Main idea

The presumption behind this arrangement is obvious: You do not merely generalize; you support your contentions and propositions with examples and details. Indeed, that is exactly what you are expected to do—to make assertions that are supported by concrete examples and specific details. If you have not been diligent in gathering specific facts about your topic, this deficiency will now be painfully obvious. Notice that every subdivided category must have at least two sections because it is impossible to divide anything into fewer than two parts. An outline that divides the subject into three or four levels—that is, down to examples or details—generally is adequate for most college research papers. If further subdivisions are necessary, the format is as follows:

I.

A.

1.

a.

(1)

(a)

The basic principle remains the same: Larger ideas or elements are stacked to the left, with smaller ideas or elements to the right.

Equal Ranking in the Outline

The logic of an outline requires that each entry be based on the same organizing principle as another entry of equal rank. All capital-letter entries consequently must be equivalent in importance and derived from the same organizing principle. Notice the absence of equal ranking in the following example:

I. Rousseau gave the people a new government to work toward.

A. It would be a government based on the general will.

B. The new government would serve the people instead of the people serving the government.

C. The people tore down the Bastille.

Entry C is out of place because it is not of equal rank with entries A and B. A and B are sub-ideas that characterize the new government proposed by Rousseau; C is a statement that describes the revolt of the French people against the old government.

Parallel Ranking in the Outline

The clarity and readability of an outline are improved if its entries are worded in similar grammatical form. Notice the lack of parallelism in the following outline:

I. The uses of the laser in the military

A. For range finding

B. For surveillance

C. To illuminate the enemy’s position

Entries A and B consist of the preposition “for” followed by a noun, whereas entry C is worded as an infinitive phrase. C should be reworded to make it grammatically like entries A and B:

I. The uses of the laser in the military

A. For range finding

B. For surveillance

C. For illuminating the enemy’s position

The outline now is easier to read because its entries are parallel.

Types of Research Paper Outlines

The three main types of outlines are the topic outline, the sentence outline, and the paragraph outline. Never mix or combine the different formats in a research paper: use one type of outline exclusively.

The Topic Outline Template

The topic outline words each entry as a phrase, breaking down the subject into major subheadings. Topic outlines are particularly useful for outlining relatively simple subjects. Here is a topic outline of the paper on Grigori Rasputin:

Grigori Rasputin’s Other Side

Thesis: After six decades of being judged a demoniacal libertine, Rasputin now deserves to be viewed from another point of view–as a man who was intensely religious, who passionately desired peace, and who was deeply devoted to his family and friends.

I. The ambiguity of the real Rasputin

A. His birth

B. Popular historical view

1. His supporters

2. His detractors

II. Rasputin’s religious feelings

A. His vitality and exuberance

B. His simple peasant faith

III. Rasputin’s desire for peace in Russia

A. His concern for the Russian underdog

1. His loyalty to the peasantry

2. His opposition to anti-Semitism

B. His opposition to all wars

IV. Rasputin’s gentle, compassionate side

A. His kindness to the Romanovs

B. His love for family

Notice that the thesis of the research paper is a separate entry immediately after the title. It is also customary to omit introduction and conclusion entries.

The Sentence Outline Template

The sentence outline uses a complete sentence for each entry. Some instructors allow the entries to be worded as questions, but most prefer declarative sentences. Sentence outlines are especially well suited for complex subjects. Here is a sentence outline of the research paper on Grigori Rasputin:

Grigori Rasputin’s Other Side

Thesis: After six decades of being judged a demoniacal libertine, Rasputin now deserves to be viewed from another point of view–as a man who was intensely religious, who passionately desired peace, and who was deeply devoted to his family and friends.

I. The real Rasputin is difficult to discover.

A. The birth of Rasputin coincided with a shooting star.

B. The popular historical view of Rasputin portrays him as primarily evil.

1. Supporters called him a spiritual leader.

2. Detractors called him a satyr and charged that his depraved faithful were merely in awe of his sexual endowments.

II. Rasputin had intense religious feelings.

A. He was both vital and exuberant.

B. He had a simple peasant faith in God.

III. Rasputin’s passionate desire for peace in Russia revealed itself in several ways.

A. He was concerned for the Russian underdog.

1. He wanted a tsar who would stand up for the peasantry.

2. He spoke out boldly against anti-Semitism.

B. Because of his humanitarian spirit, he was opposed to all wars.

IV. Rasputin had a gentle, compassionate side.

A. He showed great kindness to the Romanovs.

B. Maria Rasputin tells of her father’s love for his family.

The Paragraph Outline Template

The paragraph outline records each entry as a complete paragraph, in effect producing a condensed version of the research paper. This form is useful mainly for long papers whose individual sections can be summarized in whole paragraphs; it is seldom recommended by instructors for ordinary college papers. Here is the Rasputin paper in the form of a paragraph outline:

Grigori Rasputin’s Other Side

Thesis: After six decades of being judged a demoniacal libertine, Rasputin now deserves to be viewed from another point of view–as a man who was intensely religious, who passionately desired peace, and who was deeply devoted to his family and friends.

I. Rasputin himself always attached great significance to the fact that at the time of his birth, a shooting star was seen streaking across the horizon. He considered the phenomenon to be an omen that he was fated to have influence and special powers. The popular historical view of Rasputin paints him primarily as evil. In his day, however, he attracted numerous supporters, who thought of him as their spiritual leader. But he also had many detractors who called him a satyr and accused his followers of sexual depravity.

II. Rasputin had intense religious feelings. He was so filled with vitality and exuberance that he could stay awake until the early hours of the morning, dancing and drinking in frenzied religious fervor. He did not have the theology of a sophisticated church cleric; instead he expressed his religion in the simple terms of a Russian peasant.

III. Rasputin’s passionate desire for peace in Russia revealed itself in several ways. For instance, he was concerned for the Russian underdogs, for the peasants and the Jews, always encouraging the tsar to protect these unfortunate groups. And, his humanitarian and pacifist nature made him a determined opponent of all wars.

IV. Rasputin had a gentle, compassionate side. He was completely devoted to the tsar’s family and was known to have had a calming influence on the hemophiliac son of the tsar. Maria Rasputin gives a glowing report of her father’s kindness and love.

The Decimal Outline Template

Other outline forms use various methods of indenting, labeling, and spacing. One form that has been gaining favor in business and science is the decimal outline. Based on the decimal accounting system, this outline form permits an unlimited number of subdivisions through the simple addition of another decimal place. Here is the body of the Rasputin research paper notated in the decimal outline form:

Grigori Rasputin’s Other Side

Thesis: After six decades of being judged a demoniacal libertine, Rasputin now deserves to be viewed from another point of view–as a man who was intensely religious, who passionately desired peace, and who was deeply devoted to his family and friends.

1. The ambiguity of the real Rasputin

1.1. His birth

1.2. Popular historical view

1.2.1. His supporters

1.2.2. His detractors

2. Rasputin’s religious feelings

2.1. His vitality and exuberance

2.2. His simple peasant faith

3. Rasputin’s desire for peace in Russia

3.1. His concern for the Russian underdog

3.1.1. His loyalty to the peasantry

3.1.2. His opposition to anti-Semitism

3.2. His opposition to all wars

4. Rasputin’s gentle, compassionate side

4.1. His kindness to the Romanovs

4.2. His love for family

Notice that the decimal outline form uses the same indentation pattern as other outlines, with larger ideas stacked to the left and smaller ideas to the right.

How to Choose an Outline Format

Which kind of outline should you use? If you are a beginning writer, and if your research has uncovered much detail on your subject, don’t hesitate: Use a detailed sentence outline. Develop it at least down to the third level—the level of Arabic numerals. In doing so, you actually erect a kind of scaffolding for the paper. To write the rough draft, you simply transcribe from the outline, fill in the blanks, insert transitions and connectives—and you have a research paper. The main entries of a sentence outline should be the topic sentences of various paragraphs. Its details should be exactly the kind you intend to use to support the topic sentence.

Not all instructors require a formal outline for a research paper. Indeed, not all writers would benefit from making one. Some writers compose organically and do not like to be hemmed in by a predefined plan. Others like to have a visible scaffolding for their papers. The point is, if your instructor does not require an outline and you do not feel you would benefit from making one, then simply sit down and begin writing the paper. On the other hand, if an outline would help you write a paper but is not required, go ahead and outline to your heart’s content. If given a choice between outlining and not outlining, do what suits you. The idea is to write the best paper you can, not the best outline.

Finally, we don’t want to leave you with the impression that the movement from thesis to outline to final paper is always neat, predictable, and certain. It is anything but. Writing, as we’ve said before, is a messy business. It leaves behind a litter of scrawled-over papers and almost never proceeds in a straight, unbroken line. For example, you could begin by drafting an outline and find to your dismay that the actual paper you write turns out to be considerably different from what you outlined. If that should happen to you, simply change the outline while being comforted by the thought that it has happened at one time or another to every writer. In fact, it is a healthy sign: It shows that once inspired, you were smart enough to write freely, that you weren’t hog-tied by misplaced loyalty to an outline. When it comes to writing, almost nothing occurs in an ideal way, and every paper is accompanied by a good deal of fumbling, false starts, dead ends, and unexpected departures from plans. Expect complications, and your outlook as you tackle your paper will be healthily realistic.

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