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Now your research paper 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?

How to Write an Outline for a Research Paper

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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.

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.

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:







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.

Research Paper Outline Formats

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.

See research paper outline examples.

Back to How To Write A Research Paper.


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