How to Write an Outline for a Research Paper

Writing a research paper outlineNow your writing is beginning to take shape. The next step is to turn those piles of notes you’ve taken into an outline for a research paper. With a good outline, you are better able to write a logical, well-organized paper. You may even start to feeling that your paper can practically write itself!

What Is an Outline?

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.

Why Creating an Outline?

Some instructors will require you to submit a formal outline with your research paper. These instructors understand that an outline serves as a preview tool that allows them to grasp your thesis and organization at a glance. It explains the scope and direction of your paper as well. Whether or not you’re required to submit an outline with your final paper, making an outline is a superb way to help you construct and classify your ideas. In addition, an outline serves as a final check that your paper is unified and coherent. It helps you see where you need to revise and edit your writing, too.

Moving From Notes to Outline

The way you organized your note cards gives you a good idea of how to organize your outline. While outlining is not difficult, it can be challenging to get started. The following these 10 steps can make the task easier:

  1. First, arrange your notes in a logical order that you can follow as you write. If you’re having difficulty seeing an order, look for clues in the sequence of your ideas. You can make a diagram, such as a flowchart, to help you visualize the best order to use.
  2. Jot down major headings.
  3. Sort the material to fit under the headings. Revise the headings, order, or both, as necessary.
  4. Look for relationships among ideas and group them as subtopics.
  5. Try to avoid long lists of subtopics. Consider combining these into related ideas. In nearly all cases, your paper will be better for having linked related ideas.
  6. If you can’t decide where to put something, put it in two or more places in the outline. As you write, you can decide which place is the most appropriate.
  7. If you’re not sure that an idea fits, write yourself a reminder to see where it belongs after you’ve written your first draft.
  8. If an important idea doesn’t fit, write a new outline with a place for it. If it’s important, it belongs in the paper.
  9. Accept your outline as a working draft. Revise and edit as you proceed.
  10. After you finish your outline, let it sit for a few days. Then look back at it and see what ideas don’t seem to fit, which points need to be expanded, and so on. No matter how carefully you construct your outline, it will inevitably change. Don’t be discouraged by these changes; they are part of the writing process.

Identifying Your Thesis

The thesis is arguably the most important sentence in the paper, but, at this point, it is still a work in progress. You will change it to focus it and make it stronger when you write your draft. You will change it again as you revise and refine it in the editing process. The purpose of producing a working thesis for an outline is to get you started, to jumpstart your thinking.

This working thesis should be different from the subject, or topic, of your paper. It must do more than simply state “This paper is about …” A good thesis includes the most important information your reader should know. It may identify key themes or state a position, hypothesis, theory, opinion, or point of view that the paper is designed to defend, advocate, or argue. The type of paper you are writing will determine what the thesis should address:

  • A thesis for a summary, such as a book report, should highlight the most important theme, opinion, or point of the reading.
  • A thesis for a narrative, or story, should set the mood, state the theme, or identify the purpose in telling the tale.
  • A thesis for a description or process paper should state the purpose and outcome of the process or experiment that is about to be described and highlight what was surprising or significant about it.
  • A thesis for a persuasive paper should present the opinion or point of view that you want the reader to adopt.

It is always tempting to begin on a note that everyone can agree with, but this is not what you want to do when presenting research. A thesis should always be to the point. Make it as specific as possible and avoid making general statements or obvious observations. Your audience wants a thesis that will show them why they should read the paper. What will they learn? What makes it important? The thesis is usually presented in a single sentence that appears near the end of the introduction, the first paragraph of your paper. The body of the paper, the paragraphs that follow, will present the evidence that “proves” the thesis or, in the case of summaries and descriptions, completes a picture for the reader.

The thesis must also do more than simply restate or summarize the background you were given in the assignment. It should reveal the most important thing you learned from your research. You should avoid referencing yourself in the thesis (using personal pronouns such as I,me, or my). A good thesis is  not just an opinion; it states what you concluded from the research you conducted.

Tips for Writing Successful Thesis Statements

  • The thesis should make a strong point about your topic; it should not simply name a topic.
  • The thesis should express a proposition, opinion, or point of view. It should not simply repeat facts or summarize findings.
  • The thesis should be specific. It should avoid vague or universal statements and avoid absolute or all-inclusive words such as “everyone,”“everything,”“good,” or “successful.”
  • The thesis should show readers why they should care about the subject. It should catch their interest and encourage them to read to the end.

Identifying Topics and Arguments

The body of a research paper contains evidence that supports the thesis and shows why it is correct. In a persuasive paper, that evidence often takes the form of “arguments” aimed at convincing a reader to accept the opinion the writer expressed in the thesis. Arguments in a persuasive paper are not like quarrels you have with another person. There is no place for name-calling and personal attacks in a research paper. The arguments must be supported by what you uncovered in your research.

Just as you identified the arguments in other writers’ work when you were doing your research, you must now identify the arguments you will use to support your thesis as you assemble your outline. Just as you looked for logical, emotional, and ethical arguments when you researched others’ work, you must now create them to make your own research paper convincing:

  • Your logical arguments should be presented in a rational order to make the thesis convincing. Logical arguments are usually based on facts, examples, and data that support the outcome that is predicted or advocated by the thesis.
  • Your emotional arguments should appeal to readers’ feelings. Emotional arguments are often based on examples or stories and anecdotes that move readers to support the thesis.They typically use vivid descriptions to help readers personally relate to the thesis.
  • Your ethical arguments should establish the authority of your research by identifying and quoting or paraphrasing experts on the subject.

Form of an Outline

Outlines are written in a specific form, observing specific rules. The following section shows this format.

Model Outline Template

Thesis statement: Write your thesis statement here.

I. Major topics or paragraphs are indicated by Roman numerals. These are made by using the capitals I,V, or X on your keyboard.

A. Subheads are indicated by capital letters.

1. Details are indicated by numbers, followed by a period.

a. More specific details are indicated with lower-case letters.

b. These are written a, b, c, and so forth.

2. Begin each entry with a capital letter.

B. You can have as many entries as you like, but there must be at least two in each category.

1. You cannot have a I without a II.

2. You cannot have an A without a B.

3. You cannot have a 1 without a 2.

4. You cannot have a lower case a without a lower case b.

II. Entries should be in parallel order.

A. Entries may be word entries.

B. Entries may be phrase entries.

C. Entries may be sentence entries.

For sample outlines, see the research paper outline examples.

Types of Outlines

There are several types of outlines, two of which are discussed below: jotted outlines and working outlines.

Jotted Outline

A jotted outline is a sketch of an outline, a list of the major points you want to cover. A jotted outline is a useful way to organize your thoughts because you can see what you’re including at a glance. Here’s a model of a jotted outline:

Sample Jotted Outline

Thesis: Since cigarette smoking creates many problems for the general public, it should be outlawed in all public places.

I. Harms health

A. Lung disease

B. Circulatory disease

II. Causes safety problems

A. Destroys property

B. Causes fires

III. Sanitation problems

A. Soils the possessions

B. Causes unpleasant odors

IV. Conclusion

Working Outline

A working outline, in contrast, is more fully fleshed out than a jotted outline. Expanded and divided into topics and subtopics, it helps you create a map as you draft your research paper. An effective working outline has the following parts:

  1. Introduction
  2. Thesis
  3. Major topics and subtopics
  4. Major transitions
  5. Conclusion

Usually, the entries are written as sentences. Here’s a model of a working outline, expanded from the previous jotted outline. Note that the entries are written as complete sentences.

Sample Working Outline

Thesis: Since cigarette smoking creates many problems for the general public, it should be outlawed in all public places.

I. Cigarette smoke harms the health of the public.

A. Cigarette smoke may lead to serious diseases in nonsmokers.

1. It leads to lung disease.

a. It causes cancer.

b. It causes emphysema.

2. It leads to circulatory disease in nonsmokers.

a. It causes strokes.

b. It causes heart disease.

B. Cigarette smoke worsens other less serious health conditions.

1. It aggravates allergies in nonsmokers.

2. It causes pulmonary infections to become chronic.

3. It can lead to chronic headache.

II. Cigarette smoking causes safety problems.

A. Burning ash may destroy property.

B. Burning cigarettes may cause serious fires.

III. Cigarette smoke leads to sanitation problems.

A. Ash and tar soil the possessions of others.

B. Ash and tar cause unpleasant odors and fog the air.

IV. Conclusions

A. Cigarette smoking injures people’s health and so should be banned in all public places.

B. Cigarette smoking damages property and so should be banned in all public places.

Rules for Outlining

The model outline follows certain rules. The following 5 rules can help you write an outline that leads to a well-organized paper:

  1. Use Roman numerals to indicate main topics.
  2. Use capital letters to indicate subtopics.
  3. Use Arabic numbers to indicate details.
  4. Include at least two main topics. (Our example has three.)
  5. Include least two entries at each level. In other words, have at least two main topics. Under each main topic, include at least two subtopics. And under each subtopic, have at least two details.

Why do these rules matter? They matter because when you draft your research paper, the main topics become paragraphs, and the subtopics become sentences. You need more than one paragraph to make a paper, you need more than one sentence to make a paragraph, and you need more than one detail to support an idea.

In general, a standard high school or college research paper should have no more than four or five main points. This means you shouldn’t have more than four or five Roman numerals in your outline. If you have too many ideas, your paper will either be too long or more likely, vague and overly general. See research paper outline examples for more information on outline writing and alternative forms of research paper outlines.

At last, you’re ready to draft your research paper. That means putting words down on paper—and more.

Read more on How to Write a Research Paper.


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