How to Write a Research Paper Outline

If you are reading this that chances are good that you either have an assignment due or you have a desire to learn something about pre-writing.  Prewriting, or ‘outlining’ as it is often referred to as is a formative precursor to the actual writing process. It is the initial step in the progression and often occur prior to the development of the first draft.

When it comes to the actual writing process, no two people are the same. Everyone, in one element or another, adopts their own unique approach to the development of 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.

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Most Popular Types of Outlines and Samples

As mentioned earlier, despite there being 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 outlines that you might choose to deploy in a storyboarding or strategy planning situation.  Note that these particular strategies are often found to be the most useful when planning a fictional story or an essay.

They are:

  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 up into multiple segments, developing smaller summaries for each segment. This method is excellent for longer stores, particularly when the author already has a good idea for the direction of the storyline.

In this method, the writer will be able to clearly note all of their thoughts, and prevent the challenge of forgetting important details as the ideas flow.

Although there are several different variations of this approach, 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 of 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 a clear representation of the story in the fact that it is designed to help the author to recall as much detail as possible.

This approach is particularly beneficial for smaller stories. It can also be used to further plan prewriting strategies, 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. Ie: Are you focusing on the characters, the setting, etc.

The Snowflake Approach

In this method, the outline is typically either messy and unstructured or extremely organized and very systematic. The main concept is to begin smaller and expand as more detail presents itself. This is a fantastic option for writers who have developed a great story idea and want to further expand on that. This method is a true brainstorming strategy, only it also allows the writer to better organize and collect their thoughts.

Most often, this approach will begin with a single sentence summary about the story and will be followed by a complete paragraph summary and corresponding summaries for each character.

The Three Act Structure

The approach is often used to help better organize a story that is not yet fully developed. It helps writers to take their story idea to the next level by using the plot idea that they have and further branching into three more acts. Namely, they need to develop a primary conflict that contains relevant action the builds up to a climax and then leads to a resolution. This is the simplest description of a plotline, but it works for helping authors to develop their ideas onto 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
  2. The hero is motivated to act, and begins to train
  3. Good wins over evil

The Freytag Approach

Similar to the Journey of the Hero, the Freytag approach is also a three stage process. It also the writer to benefit from having a semblance of structure to drive organization of their writing, but also 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:

  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 fairly straight forward idea of how to piece together their storyline.

Draft Zero

Draft zero is essentially the pre-draft of the first draft. It is not an outline in the traditional sense, more so it is freewriting.

In this method, writers simply write. They write out 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 might choose to make use of symbols, strike-outs, notes or anything else that they might need just to get their story on to research paper as quickly as possible.

This is often the preferred method of writers who just want to get their story ‘out there.’

With creative writing outlines out of the way, let’s focus on some of the outlines that are more specific to the academic and research worlds.

Read also: Can I pay someone to write a research paper for me?

What is Alphanumeric Outlines

In academia, the most common outline that you will come across are, in one degree or another, alphanumeric outlines. 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 outlines will follow this structure:

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

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

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What is the Assignment Which Requires Outlines

Let’s pretend for a minute that you are a college student and your teacher has instructed you to draft an explanatory essay on the progression of steps that you might follow to make an egg salad sandwich.

What is the purpose of the expository essay?

To explain how to make an egg salad sandwich

Who will the essay for read by?

People who want to make an egg salad sandwich

What is the thesis statement of the essay?

When making an egg salad sandwich, the sandwich maker follows a specific process which includes boiling eggs and preparing a mixture of ingredients to go between two pieces of bread.

Using Full Sentence Outlines

This type of outline is somewhat similar to the alphanumeric outline, only in a full sentence outline the writer must use complete sentences at every level of the outline. This is the type of outline that students will typically use when they are preparing to write a traditional essay.  Refer to the Example section for sample outline.

Getting Acquainted with Decimal Outlines

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

Some Outline Examples For Your Convenience

Earlier we mentioned the scenario of a teacher having instructed her class to write an expository essay on the topic of how to make an egg salad sandwich.

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

The Process Of Making An Egg Salad Sandwich

  1. Select the ingredients
    1. Visit and evaluate the local farmers market
    2. Visit and evaluate the local grocer
      1. Look for high-quality eggs
      2. Note any differences in quality
    3. Prepare the egg salad
      1. Choose a good recipe
        1. Explain how your grandmothers egg salad was your favourite as a child
          1. She always made it when you came over to visit
          2. Your grandfather used to eat it with mustard
        2. Include full recipe details
          1. Describe every step in making the egg salad
          2. What tools did you use
  • Compile closing statement

Now let’s explore the same scenario, only with a full sentence outline.

The Process Of Making An Egg Salad Sandwich

  1. Egg salad sandwiches are delicious.
  2. Farm fresh eggs and homemade bread promote locally grown and sourced food.
  3. Egg salad sandwiches are good for the local economy.

Full sentences outlines should be followed with an APA reference list (or one that adheres to the citation method of your specific field of study. Any quotes used in the outline should also use in-text citations.

Lastly, let’s explore the same scenario as above, only with a decimal outline.

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The Process Of Making An Egg Salad Sandwich

  • Purchase required ingredients
    • Visit an evaluate local farmer’s market
    • Visit and evaluate local grocer
      • Select high-quality eggs
      • Note quality differences between farm and grocer
    • Prepare the egg salad
      • Choose a good recipe
        • Explain how your grandmother’s egg salad recipe was your favorite as a child

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

Keep in mind that outlines are not intended to help you to get your thoughts on paper, to plan out the progression of your writing and keep things organized. Similar to how the egg salad sandwich mentioned in our scenario above required a recipe, think of an outline as being a recipe for your writing. You are not required to use everything that you put into your outline in your writing, in fact, you might find that after reviewing your outline that some of the 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 the outline is to improve your writing, not to hinder it.

As you 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 need to do further research on a specific topic or component that you want to share in your writing. This is ok too. Regardless of whether you choose to you a full sentence outline, a decimal outline, or even some combination of the two, nothing is ever set in stone.