What Is A Good Research Paper Outline

I.   General Approaches

There are two general approaches you can take when writing an outline for your paper:

The topic outline consists of short phrases. This approach is useful when you are dealing with a number of different issues that could be arranged in a variety of different ways in your paper. Due to short phrases having more content than using simple sentences, they create better content from which to build your paper.

The sentence outline is done in full sentences. This approach is useful when your paper focuses on complex issues in detail. The sentence outline is also useful because sentences themselves have many of the details in them needed to build a paper and it allows you to include those details in the sentences instead of having to create an outline of short phrases that goes on page after page.

II.   Steps to Making the Outline

A strong outline details each topic and subtopic in your paper, organizing these points so that they build your argument toward an evidence-based conclusion. Writing an outline will also help you focus on the task at hand and avoid unnecessary tangents, logical fallacies, and underdeveloped paragraphs.

  1. Identify the research problem. The research problem is the focal point from which the rest of the outline flows. Try to sum up the point of your paper in one sentence or phrase. It also can be key to deciding what the title of your paper should be.
  2. Identify the main categories. What main points will you analyze? The introduction describes all of your main points; the rest of  your paper can be spent developing those points.
  3. Create the first category. What is the first point you want to cover? If the paper centers around a complicated term, a definition can be a good place to start. For a paper about a particular theory, giving the general background on the theory can be a good place to begin.
  4. Create subcategories. After you have followed these steps, create points under it that provide support for the main point. The number of categories that you use depends on the amount of information that you are trying to cover. There is no right or wrong number to use.

Once you have developed the basic outline of the paper, organize the contents to match the standard format of a research paper as described in this guide.

III.   Things to Consider When Writing an Outline

  • There is no rule dictating which approach is best. Choose either a topic outline or a sentence outline based on which one you believe will work best for you. However, once you begin developing an outline, it's helpful to stick to only one approach.
  • Both topic and sentence outlines use Roman and Arabic numerals along with capital and small letters of the alphabet arranged in a consistent and rigid sequence. A rigid format should be used especially if you are required to hand in your outline.
  • Although the format of an outline is rigid, it shouldn't make you inflexible about how to write your paper. Often when you start investigating a research problem [i.e., reviewing the research literature], especially if you are unfamiliar with the topic, you should anticipate the likelihood your analysis could go in different directions. If your paper changes focus, or you need to add new sections, then feel free to reorganize the outline.
  • If appropriate, organize the main points of your outline in chronological order. In papers where you need to trace the history or chronology of events or issues, it is important to arrange your outline in the same manner, knowing that it's easier to re-arrange things now than when you've almost finished your paper.
  • For a standard research paper of 15-20 pages, your outline should be no more than four pages in length. It may be helpful as you are developing your outline to also write down a tentative list of references.

Four Main Components for Effective Outlines. The Writing Lab and The OWL. Purdue University; How to Make an Outline. Psychology Writing Center. University of Washington; Organization: Informal Outlines. The Reading/Writing Center. Hunter College; Organization: Standard Outline Form. The Reading/Writing Center. Hunter College; Outlining. Department of English Writing Guide. George Mason University; Plotnic, Jerry. Organizing an Essay. University College Writing Centre. University of Toronto; Reverse Outline. The Writing Center. University of North Carolina; Reverse Outlines: A Writer's Technique for Examining Organization. The Writer’s Handbook. Writing Center. University of Wisconsin, Madison; Using Outlines. Writing Tutorial Services, Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning. Indiana University; Writing: Considering Structure and Organization. Institute for Writing Rhetoric. Dartmouth College.

An outline is a tool used  to organize written ideas about a topic or thesis into a logical order. Outlines arrange major topics, subtopics, and supporting details.  Writers use outlines when writing their papers in order to know which topic to cover in what order.  Outlines for papers can be very general or very detailed. Check with your instructor to know which is expected of you. Here are some examples of different outlines. You can also learn more by watching the short video below.

The most common type of outline is an alphanumeric outline, or an outline that uses letters and numbers in the following order:

I.     Roman Numerals

A.    I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, etc.

B.    Represent main ideas to be covered in the paper in the order they will be presented

II.    Uppercase Letters

A.   A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, L, etc.

B.    Represent subtopics within each main idea

III.      Arabic Numbers

   A.    1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, etc.

   B.    Represent details or subdivisions within subtopics

IV.    Lowercase Letters

   A.    a, b, c, d, e, f, g, h, i, j, l, m, etc.

   B.    Represent details within subdivisions

Outline with main ideas, subtopics, subdivisions and details:

Thesis: Drugs should be legalized.

I. Legalization of drugs would reduce crime rates

A. Prohibition  

1. Before Prohibition, crime rate related to alcohol were low-to-medium  

2. During Prohibition, crime rates related to alcohol were high

a. Arrests for drunkenness and disorderly conduct increase 41%  

b. Federal prison population increased 366%  

3. After Prohibition, crime rates related to alcohol were very low 

B. Amsterdam/Netherlands 

1. Before Amsterdam had legalized marijuana, drug-related crime rates were high

2. After Amsterdam had legalized marijuana, drug-related crime rates dropped

II. Legalization of drugs would benefit the economy

A. Taxes

1. Local taxes 

2. State taxes 

3. Federal taxes

B. Business Owners

1. Drug production  

2. Drug quality testing  

3. Drug sales

III. Legalization of drugs would benefit public health

A. Quality of drugs would increase

1. Fake/dangerous drugs eliminated

2. Fake/placebo drugs eliminated

3. Amount of active ingredient standardized and stabilized

B. Drug users with addiction issues would get more help

1. Hospitals

2. Clinics

3. Public health clinics

C. Your people would be less likely to start drugs

Full-sentence outline:

  • Each roman numeral (I, II, III, IV…) indicates the start of a new paragraph. So I. is the first sentence of the introduction, II. is the first sentence of the first paragraph of the body, III. is the first sentence of the second paragraph of the body, and so on.
  •  Each capital letter (A, B, C, D…) indicates a main point within the structure of the paragraph. So in our introduction, A. is the attention getter, B. is another attention getter, C. describes a point that makes the topic personal, and D. is the thesis statement.
  • Each Arabic numeral (1, 2, 3, 4…) indicates a sentence or piece of supporting evidence for each main point. So in the first body paragraph (II.), point A. is a general statement that needs some additional support, so 1. provides a supporting statement of fact and the citation of where that information came from. 2. provides another sentence with supporting evidence, as does 3.

Example of a full-sentence outline:

Warming Our World and Chilling Our Future

Thesis Statement: Today I want to share what I have learned about global warming and its causes.

I. Global warming is alive and well and thriving in Antarctica.

      A. In winter 1995, an iceberg the size of Rhode Island broke off.

      B. In October 1998, an iceberg the size of Delaware broke off.

      C. All of us have a lot at stake.

            1. Now, I am what you call a “country mouse.”

            2. I love the outdoors.

            3. You can be a “city mouse,” and like clean air, good water, and not having to worry about sun.

      D. Today I want to share what I have learned about global warming and its causes.

II. Global warming is a gradual warming of the Earth from human activities (citation).

      A. It is characterized by a high concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

            1. Each year five tons of CO2 are pumped into the atmosphere (citation).

            2. The carbon dioxide traps heat.

            3. 1998 set temperature records (citation).

      B. Carbon pollutants also eat a hole in the ozone layer (citation).

            1. In 1998 this hole set a size record.

            2. This allows more ultraviolet radiation to reach Earth.

      C. If this problem is not corrected; we may see disastrous results (citation).

            1. There could be dramatic climate changes.

                  a. There could be drought in the middle of continents.

                  b. There could be many severe storms.

                  c. There could be rising sea levels that would destroy coastal areas.

            2. There could be serious health problems.

                  a. There could be an increase in skin cancer.

                  b. There could be an increase in cataracts.

                  c. There could be damaged immune systems.

      D. Now that you understand what global warming is and why it is important, let’s examine its major causes.

III. The loss of woodlands adds to global warming (citation).

IV. Industrial emissions accelerate global warming (citation).

V. Personal energy consumption magnifies global warming (citation).

VI. In conclusion, if you want to know why we have global warming, listen for the falling trees, watch the industrial smokestacks darkening the sky, and smell the exhaust fumes we are pumping into the air.

        A. Gore told a story on how global warming can sneak up on us.

        B. Addressing the National Academy of Sciences, the vice president said, “If dropped into a pot of boiling water….”

        C. The more we know about global warming, the more likely we are to jump and the less likely we are to be cooked.

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