Writing an Outline for a Research Paper

access_timeMarch 30, 2018

Make a plan


An outline is a plan of how you will arrange ideas in the most effective way possible. Information needs to be organized and must flow logically for readers to understand the point of your research paper.

Many students skip outlining because they trust their ability to construct a strong body of work without one. This is rarely true for first-time writers or even experienced writers. The advantages of preparing an outline before writing include:

  • You classify information beforehand; Consequently, you focus on expressing your ideas and using the right grammar and structures when you write the actual paper.
  • Outlining saves time. You do the hard work of finalizing main points and supporting data and facts. All you need to do afterward is write it coherently.
  • An outline reveals irrelevant or weak material. When you view the full plan and how ideas flow and complement each other, unnecessary points are clear to spot.
  • Outlining allows you to select the most relevant sources and incorporate them in a way that strengthens your points.

For these reasons, it is one of the most important steps in academic writing a good research paper. Some would argue it is the most important step.

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How to Construct an Outline

Your outline is not set in stone. You can go back and change sections if you find new information or discover how to make better research. However, the elements of an outline are standard, and they separate the blueprint into an introduction, body paragraphs or sections, and a conclusion. Sections can be divided using headings and subheadings.

Outline Content

Your outline contains the main points of your research. These main points are the core of your paper, and outlining them puts everything in perspective. Change ideas if you notice the outline is not coherent or a particular section offers weak support.

These characteristics ensure your outline gives a clear impression of the message you deliver to readers:

  • Headings should match in terms of significance. For instance, all main headings should be the vital points that support your topic.

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  • Main headings should be a general theme of discussion.
  • Subheadings are usually longer than main headings. They contain specific information to explore and expand on the general main headings.
  • The grammatical structures of each level should match. For example, if one main heading is a noun (Communication in our example above,) then every other main heading should be a noun. The same applies to subheadings. This way, the focus of a paragraph is clear, and it prepares you for writing.

Here are some examples of outlines with different levels. Your instructor could ask you to submit your outline with your paper. They may request a specific outline style too, such as MLA format. This requires attention to line spacings, tabs, margins, and other formatting issues.

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