Getting started with your research paper outline

The outline is the skeleton of your research paper. Simply start by writing down your thesis and the main ideas you wish to present. This will likely change as your research progresses; therefore, do not worry about being too specific in the early stages of writing your outline. The most important part is done by now, we are just going to extend and organize it.

Understanding the levels of your research paper outline is key

A research paper outline typically contains between two and four layers of organisation. The first two layers are the most generalised. Each layer thereafter will contain the research you complete and presents more and more detailed information.

The levels are typically represented by a combination of Roman numerals, Arabic numerals, uppercase letters, lowercase letters but may include other symbols. Refer to the guidelines provided by your institution, as formatting is not universal and differs between universities, fields, and subjects. If you are writing the outline for yourself, you may choose any combination you prefer.

First level of organisation

This is the most generalised level of information. Begin by numbering the introduction, each idea you will present, and the conclusion. The main ideas contain the bulk of your research paper's information. Depending on your research, it may be chapters of a book for a literature review, a series of dates for a historical research paper, or the methods and results of a scientific paper.

  I. Introduction
  II. Main idea
  III. Main idea
  IV. Main idea
  V. Conclusion

Second level or organisation

The second level consists of topics which support the introduction, main ideas, and the conclusion. Each main idea should have at least two supporting topics listed in the outline. If your main idea does not have enough support, you should consider presenting another main idea in its place. This is where you should stop outlining if this is your first draft. Continue your research before adding to the next levels of organisation.

I. Introduction
    A. Background information
    B. Hypothesis or thesis

II. Main idea
    A. Supporting topic
    B. Supporting topic

Third level of organisation

The third level of organisation contains supporting information for the topics previously listed. By now, you should have completed enough research to add support for your ideas.

The Introduction and Main Ideas may contain information you discovered about the author, timeframe, or contents of a book for a literature review; the historical events leading up to the research topic for a historical research paper, or an explanation of the problem a scientific research paper intends to address.

I. Introduction
    A. Background information
        1. Relevant history
        2. Relevant history
    B. Hypothesis or thesis
        1. The hypothesis or thesis clearly stated

II. Main idea
    A. Supporting topic
        1. A brief description of supporting information
        2. A brief description of supporting information
    B. Supporting topic
        1. A brief description of supporting information
        2. A brief description of supporting information

Fourth level of organisation

The fourth level of organisation contains the most detailed information such as quotes, references, observations or specific data needed to support the main idea. It is not typical to have further levels of organisation because the information contained here is the most specific.

I. Introduction
    A. Background information
        1. Relevant history
        2. Relevant history
            a) Quotes or references to another piece of literature
    B. Hypothesis or thesis
        1. The hypothesis or thesis clearly stated
            a) Quotes or references to another piece of literature

II. Main idea
    A. Supporting topic
        1. A brief description of supporting information
            a) Quotes or references to another piece of literature
            b) Quotes or references to another piece of literature
        2. A brief description of supporting information
    B. Supporting topic
        1. A brief description of supporting information
        2. A brief description of supporting information

Tips for writing a research paper outline

  • Be Consistent: ensure every heading has a similar tone. State the topic or write short sentences for each heading but avoid doing both.
  • Organise Information: Higher levels of organisation are more generally stated and each supporting level becomes more specific. The introduction and conclusion will never be lower than the first level of organisation.
  • Build Support: Each main idea should have two or more supporting topics. If your research does not have enough information to support the main idea you are presenting, you should, in general, complete additional research or revise the outline.

Start writing your research paper with our ready to go templates

By now, you should know the basic requirements to create an outline for your proposed paper. With a content framework in place, you can now start writing your paper. To help you start right away, you can use one of our templates and adjust it to suit your needs.

Template for Microsoft Word

My research paper outline is complete - what are the next steps?

Keep a record of your references to avoid plagiarism. Ensure you use footnotes or endnotes - your institution's guidelines will tell you which you need.

Your bibliography will begin on its own page at the end of your research paper.

Title your research paper. This is an iterative process and may change when you delve deeper into the topic.

Begin writing your research paper draft. Continue researching to further build your outline and provide more information to support your hypothesis or thesis.

After the draft is complete, format it accordingly. MLA 8 and APA 6th ed formats have differences between their bibliography page, in-text citations, line spacing, and title.

Write your final paper. APA requires a title page and abstract. An abstract will briefly state the information contained within the paper, results of the research, and the conclusion.