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How to Write a Research Paper Outline

Author: I. Lee
Published on: Jun 12, 2018
Updated on: Jul 19, 2023
Table of content
  • Purpose of an outline
  • Choosing best format
  • Step-by-step guide
  • Most popular outline types
  • Alphanumeric research paper outline
  • Outline examples

How to write a research paper outline
If you are reading this, chances are good that you either have an assignment due or desire to learn something about pre-writing. Prewriting, or ‘outlining’ as it is often referred to, is a formative precursor to the actual writing process. It is the initial step in the progression and often occurs before developing the first draft.

When writing a research paper outline process, two people will approach it differently. Everyone, in one element or another, adopts their unique approach to developing their writing structure. Essentially, there are best practices and guidelines, but it comes down to the individual writer to decide what works best for them.

Below we will delve into seven separate types of outlines before drilling down to the more specific and commonly used outlines.

Why do you need to write an outline?

Before we get started, let’s understand why you need an outline. Many students dislike beginning with this item because it seems redundant. Meanwhile, outline helps with tasks like this:

  • Correctly structure thoughts;
  • Collect together all materials and research;
  • Keep an essential piece of a research paper.

This part of your research paper has an essential task: to make the text logical and structured and support you in presenting your thoughts so that you remember everything. This tool also helps you overcome the white paper problem when you don’t know where to start.

Thus, use any way to do an outline in your papers, and we’ll review a few ways to create it later.

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How to choose the best research paper outline format?

Several factors influence the format choice of your research paper. First, the citation and design standards that your university requires. APA, MLA, Chicago: each has characteristics that must be observed when writing. In addition, your university may have its requirements you must meet if you want a high score for a research paper.

The second factor that influences the format of your research paper is what you do. For example, if your report consists only of a formal literature review, it will differ from the one where laboratory experiments were carried out. Therefore, the type of research paper should be chosen, considering such factors.

However, the research paper format does not affect the writing of the research paper outline in any way. You can choose any creative method or layout you like best. Only the number of points will differ.

7 main steps to write an outline for a research paper

Let’s quickly look at some definitions and how to write a research paper outline. Regardless of which type you choose, the principle behind creation is similar.

Choose a central topic and read different sources

Once you have chosen a central issue to research, you will need to analyze the sources on that topic. While studying them, you will not only be able to immerse yourself in the question but also explore how other authors develop similar issues.

In this way, you will understand how to approach the description of the central issue and how to reveal the essence of the research paper.

Gather all the questions you need to answer in the study

After understanding how the research paper should look, collect all the questions and theses you want to disclose in the paper. Write them out on a separate sheet and arrange them in a logical order.

You can supplement the plan with notes or quotes to make it easier to work on the paper later.

Choose the type of writing a research paper  and research essay outline

You do not need an extensive and comprehensive plan if you have a short overview of several scientific papers or books. However, if your study is about full-fledged research, you may need to add subparagraphs.

Make sure that the paragraphs are manageable and that the subparagraphs, on the contrary, are too small. Put into the subheadings what really needs to be described.

Write the basis of the outline for the research paper

Consider arranging the questions and research topics you chose in the previous step. Let this be just sketches for now. Start organizing them.

Put the central questions in the proper order

Highlight the main themes of the research and questions and arrange them in the order in which they will be reflected in the paper.

Write down their research name and ensure they are in a logical sequence.

Add sub-points and minor topics

Now expand the central questions with subtopics. You can divide an important question into sub-points by creating an outline to make it easier for the reader to perceive the information and your paper to be more structured.

Revise the finished outline and remove unnecessary details

Sometimes the research paper outline gets too detailed. Consequently, students face the problem of writing only one sentence in one paragraph. It is not very correct and adds chaos to the text. Get rid of the extra and combine too small subsections.

Most popular types of outlines and research outline templates

As mentioned earlier, despite multiple types of writing strategies and styles, established best practices, and guidelines, ultimately, it all boils down to the individual preference of the writer.

For educational purposes, let’s explore seven examples of college research paper outlines that you might choose to deploy in a storyboarding or strategy planning situation. These strategies are often the most useful when planning a fictional story or a research paper. These include:

  1. The Traditional Method.
  2. The Synopsis.
  3. The Snowflake Approach.
  4. The Three-Act Structure.
  5. The Journey of the Hero.
  6. The Freytag Method.
  7. Draft Zero.

The traditional method

In this approach, the writer will divide their story into multiple segments, developing smaller summaries for each segment.

This method is excellent for longer stories, particularly when the author already knows the storyline’s direction. In this method, the writer can clearly note their thoughts and prevent the challenge of forgetting important details as the ideas flow.

Although this approach has several variations, some writers find it helpful to write every chapter on its own page to stay better organized.

The synopsis

This approach involves moving through the plot line and writing down all the ideas that come to mind as quickly as possible. Think of it in the same manner as brainstorming. Although, this method is slightly more refined, as it aims to create an outline for a research paper as a clear representation of the story because it is designed to help the author recall as much detail as possible.

This approach is particularly beneficial for smaller stories. It can also be used to plan prewriting strategies further, as it is common to progress from this method to a more detailed outline.

Here, the trick is to be cognizant of the most important details of the plot line, i.e., focusing on the characters, the setting, etc.

The snowflake approach

In this method, the research paper outline is typically messy and unstructured or extremely organized and systematic. The main concept is to begin smaller and expand as more detail presents itself. It is a fantastic option for writers who have developed a great story idea and want to further expand on that.

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This method is a true brainstorming strategy, allowing the writer to organize and collect their thoughts better. This approach will often begin with a single-sentence summary of the story and will be followed by a complete paragraph summary and corresponding summaries for each character.

The three-act

The approach is often used to help better organize a story that has yet to develop fully. It helps writers take their story idea to the next level by using their plot idea and further branching into three more acts. Namely, they need to develop a primary conflict that contains relevant action that builds up to a climax and then leads to a resolution.

It is the simplest description of a plotline, but it works to help authors to develop their ideas on top of an already solid base.

The journey of the hero

This method is seemingly more specialized than the rest and follows the traditional ‘hero’ based storyline. This method has three basic parts:

  1. The hero receives a task but refuses to accept it.
  2. The hero is motivated to act and begins to train.
  3. Good wins over evil.

The freytag approach

Like the Journey of the Hero, the Freytag approach is also a three-stage process. It also benefits the writer from having a semblance of structure to drive the organization of their writing. Still, it leaves more details to the responsibility of the writer.

For example, if the writer wants one of the sections to be longer than the other, that is their call. They might also choose to skip over larger parts and make notes to come back later on.

This approach aims to develop the following:

  1. The introduction.
  2. The rising action.
  3. The climax.
  4. The falling action.
  5. The conclusion.

With these sections outlined, the writer has a straightforward idea of how to piece together their storyline.

Draft zero

Draft zero is the pre-draft of the first draft. It is not a research paper outline in the traditional sense; it is freewriting. In this method, writers simply write. They write their story as it comes to mind, paying no attention to mistakes, spelling, etc.

All of this will be edited out later on. Using this method, writers choose to use symbols, strike-outs, notes, or anything else they need just to get their story onto a research paper as quickly as possible.

It is often the preferred method of writers who want to get their story ‘out there.’ With creative writing outlines out of the way, let’s focus on more specific outlines for the academic and research worlds.

What is an alphanumeric research paper outline?

In academia, the most common research paper outline you will come across is, in one degree or another, an alphanumeric outline. These are the variations of outlines that are typically the most recognizable to the masses. Think of them as numbered lists with a purpose or structure.

In proper form, the formatting of alphanumeric research paper outlines will follow this structure:

  • Roman Numerals (IE. II)
  • Capital Letters (IE. AA)
  • Arabic Numbers (IE. ii)
  • Lowercase Letters (IE. aa)

This type of research paper outline must be subdivided beyond the divisions. Refer to the sample outline for the research paper section for more information.

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What is the assignment which requires a research paper outline?

Let’s pretend for a minute that you are a college student and your teacher has instructed you to draft an explanatory research paper.

  • What is the purpose of the expository research paper?
  • Who will the research paper be read by?
  • What is the thesis statement of the research paper?

Using full-sentence research paper outlines

This research paper outline is similar to the alphanumeric outline, only in a full-sentence outline. The writer must use complete sentences at every level of the research paper outline. Students typically use this type of research paper outline when preparing to write a traditional research paper.

Refer to the outline example for the research paper section.

Getting acquainted with decimal research paper outlines

Also similar to the alphanumeric research paper outline, however, the benefit of a decimal system comes from its ability to demonstrate the relation of every level to the research paper as a whole. Refer to the example section for more information.

Research paper outline example for your convenience

Here is what an alphanumeric scientific paper outline for this assignment might look like.

Example of an outline for a research paper:

Paper Title: An un-presidential rhetoric? A content analysis of Ex-President Obama’s tweets

  • a. Power of presidential speech – bully pulpit
  • b. Power of the president to set tone and agenda of public conversation
  • c. Case of un-presidential speech – Obama is first president to deviate from norms of tone, manner and demeanor of conversation
  • d. Study examines manner, tone, and keywords during Obama first term
  • e. Justify importance of study

  • a. Review of popular theories in political communication: agenda-setting theory, framing theory, etc.
  • b. Review of studies done on presidential communication and social media communication: strengths and weaknesses of methodologies used
  • c. Identify gaps and areas that should be filled in presidential communication and social media strategy

  • a. Use content analysis software: Timeframe is Obama tweets during one-year period
  • b. Code and classify them into positive, negative, and neutral language
  • c. Manner and keywords used: Formal, informal/slang; attacking, defending, etc.

  • a. Describe results of content analysis – use tables to present figures about positive, negative and neutral tone
  • b. Present tables about manner: formal, informal, attacking, defending, neutral
  • c. How does Obama speech via social media significantly differ from the previous president(s)?
  • d. Is there a method to the strategy? Using agenda-setting theory, describe whether media outlets or personalities follow his messaging lead.
  • e. Limitation of the study: Content analysis can only describe content but cannot offer in-depth cause-effect or correlations of things or variables.

  • a. Study sought to measure tone and nature of presidential speech using content analysis
  • b. Study found Obama language is positive, formal, likable and friendly
  • c. Study found common keywords used in his tweets (mention common keywords)

There you have it. We have explored ten common and useful outlines to help you organize and plan your writing in every setting.

Creating an outline is worth it!

Ultimately, when it comes to choosing the right outline for your writing process, it all comes down to what you feel works the best for you. Remember that outlines are not intended to help you get your thoughts on paper, plan out the progression of your writing, and keep things organized.

You are not required to use everything you put into your outline in your writing. After reviewing your outline, some details or information mentioned simply do not work when you read them in your draft. It is okay to omit or change things. The purpose of creating an outline is to improve your writing, not to hinder it.

As your writing progresses, you might find that you need to edit your outline – or even that something you included in your outline has prompted you to do further research on a specific topic or component you want to share in your writing. This is OK too.

Nothing is set in stone whether you choose a full sentence outline, a decimal outline, or even some combination of the two!

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