Outline for a Research Paper

As a type of blueprint or plan, a research paper outline helps a writer to organize their thoughts and arguments before they actually start writing. An effective outline is a great way of streamlining the process of researching a topic and writing about it. You may have performed wonderful experiments and arrived at some excellent conclusions, but your research paper will not be taken seriously if it is not well written. An outline that is clear, concise, and detailed in its construction is an excellent foundation for a great paper. It serves to establish research boundaries and focuses your written work so that you do not stray into unrelated and irrelevant areas.        

A good outline should contain the following sections:

  • A title for your paper
  • A central thesis sentence or statement
  • The main points and main arguments you intend to make. These should be marked with roman numerals i.e. I, II, III, IV, and so on.
  • Supporting evidence for each main point. These should be marked with Arabic-style numbers or letters i.e. A, B, C, D, E, and so on.

The introductory paragraph is indicated with the roman number I. It is here you let readers know what your paper is all about and what it is you intend to prove i.e. your paper’s thesis. The introductory section should provide a short overview of your topic together with its thesis statement.

Choose an Appealing Title for Your Outline

It is recommended you choose a title that is short, simple, and appealing. The main purpose of a title is to give a brief indication of a paper’s content. Therefore, it should be short and clear. It should be devoid of irrelevant detail and phrases based on compound nouns. A title that is too long will probably appear awkward and misplaced, and will only distract readers from the real point of your paper.

Unless they are familiar or commonly known, unusual abbreviations, complex terminology, and jargon should be avoided. It is acceptable to use such everyday abbreviated terms as NATO or UNICEF, but try to avoid those that are less well known since they can leave readers feeling excluded. Sub-divide your paper’s parts further using a third level of numbering e.g. 1, 2, 3, 4. Use roman numerals (i, ii, iii, and so on) for the remainder of your sub-divisions. There is no need for so many sub-divisions or sub-headings in a paper that is short and/or relatively straightforward.

Select a Writing Style That is Suitable

The outline for your research paper can be based on one of the following two well-known methods:

An outline based on topic: This approach is useful when dealing with a number of issues that can be arranged in a variety of ways. This method allows you to effectively build your paper’s content since it is founded on shorter phrases and more general content.

An outline based on full sentences: This method is effective for any paper that addresses complex and detailed problems. Another benefit of this format is that full sentences will contain a lot of the detail needed to develop your research paper. Rather than an outline with short phrases, this type allows you to create detailed sentences.  

The sections in both of these types of outlines should be indicated with Arabic and Roman numerals along with small and capital letters arranged in a strict and consistent sequence. A strict format is more appropriate where professors want to see your paper’s outline. Irrespective of these strict requirements, your outline should not be so inflexible that it affects how you go about writing your paper. You can steer your data analysis in various directions once you start thinking about a structure for your research, particularly where the topic is unfamiliar. Should the focus of your paper change or you need to add new sections, your outline should be rearranged accordingly.

Where appropriate, arrange all main points chronologically. Where a paper requires you to trace events in chronological or historical order, organize them in the same way. Altering an outline is easier than making changes when your research paper is almost complete.

The recommended length for an outline for a standard research paper of 15-20 pages is around 4 standard-size pages. An outline can also be used to create a rough list of sources from your research work.