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How to Make a Research Paper Outline

So you have to write a research paper? It may not be on your bucket list, but it’s one of the rites of passage that happen both in high school and college. You may also be required to produce one of these literary masterpieces in your professional career! So getting accustomed to the best approach to take when writing a great research paper can prove valuable. I’m going to show you how to get started with a discussion on the most important step: your research paper outline.

Choosing a Topic

Before you can even begin to create a research paper outline, you need to know what topic you will be discussing. Of course, your instructor or supervisor may just hand you a topic. That takes the guesswork out. However, most of the time, you are able to choose your own topic (within certain parameters).

If at all possible, your topic should be something that interests you. To be forced to drone on for hours over a topic that you care nothing about is a special kind of torture!

So find something that lights your fire and will be interesting for you to research. Even if the class is economics – and you have to fight daily to stay awake during lectures – chances are that you can find something within the broad scope of economics that is at least moderately interesting to you! So really try! Try to find something that is interesting enough that research and writing on the topic is not painful.

Now if the overall subject happens to be something that actually DOES excite you, then first go ahead and rejoice! But after the party is over, you must now be careful to narrow down the topic. For instance, if you absolutely love law and now you must write a paper on it, proceed with caution. It is impossible to write a good research paper on just “law.” You must narrow that way down. And then down even farther.

For instance, you may decide that you want to write about “Criminal Law.” Well, that is too broad also. Yes, it’s a bit more focused, but not enough. So you narrow it down more to “Sentencing: How Does it Work in the Real World.” OK – that is better. But even better would be: “Florida Sentencing Guidelines and Their Impact on Judicial Discretion.”

I think you get it! Typically, the narrower your topic, the better. It gives you the freedom to hone in on specifics and really delve into your subject matter.

Finding Sources

Here’s my system for doing research on a paper. The critical time to do it is after you decide on a topic, but before you write your research paper outline. You may develop your own system, but I find this works for me and makes developing a research paper outline much, much easier.

I first just dig into resources. Whether it be the internet, books, or other sources, I dive into what I can find on the subject. Let’s say I chose the topic “The Early Life of Edgar Allan Poe” for a historical research paper. I would use the mighty oracle (the Internet) to research anything I could find on Poe’s early years.

It’s quite likely that I would find a veritable cornucopia of information on this topic. After finding a good source, I open up my writing app and write a summary statement on what I’d just read. Keep it simple, but make sure you put enough detail so that you don’t have to keep going back to the source. I then copy and paste the link to my source into the document just under my summary – just in case I need to refer to it later.

I continue this process with each good source that I find until I have a strong body of information to work with. Now that I have my topic and a whole boatload of information, it is time to write my research paper outline.

The Three Parts of the Research Paper

The three parts of any research paper are the introduction, the body, and the conclusion. Of course, your instructor may want additional sections, so you would alter this as needed. But know that your basic research paper includes these three sections.

1. Introduction

The introduction includes the topic of the research and purpose of your study. It should include your thesis statement as well (if you have one). (If so, you will want to put some time into developing an accurate thesis statement.) You can also include the approach you will take toward the discussion. The introduction should inform the reader on what they are about to read, by alerting them to the major points of the paper. Also, be sure to state if this a factual research paper, book review, argument, or some other sort of analysis.

2. Body

The body of the paper is where you make your arguments. You should always follow the “Rule of Three” which states you should have at least three arguments to support the position you have taken. And you will want to leave the strongest argument for last! Leaving it for last leaves the strongest impression in the mind of the reader, and is the most persuasive way to end your argument section.

3. Conclusion

The conclusion of the paper is the summary of your arguments made within the body of the paper. The conclusion gives you a chance to briefly reiterate your most valuable points, and show how they logically led you to your conclusion.

Writing Your Research Paper Outline

Now that you know the basic parts of a research paper, you are ready to make the research paper outline. Start with the basic parts of your paper as mentioned above.

    Introduction
    Body
    Conclusion

Now, let’s work on the introduction and conclusion sections.

Introduction

In the introduction, you may want to include other things that prepare the reader for the rest of your paper. Let’s say you need to explain some terms or other literature that you used to put together the paper. You would want to include those in the introduction, so let’s throw those in there. For all of these examples, we will stay on the Edgar Allan Poe topic.

Introduction

    Mid-1800’s definition of terms
    Related literature

Body
Conclusion

Conclusion

Of course we will have a concluding statement, but let’s say we also have some recommendations for further reading. Let’s throw those in there:

Introduction

    Mid-1800’s definition of terms
    Related literature

Body
Conclusion

    Concluding statement
    References and recommendations for further reading

Body

Now it’s time to start filling in the gaps. If you skipped over the “Finding Sources” section, then go back and do that first. Take a look at the long list of information you put together when you were doing the research portion of your project. As you re-read it, you can decide what should go where in the body of your paper.

Most of the information you found will go into the body. Occasionally, you will find something that should be in the introduction or conclusion. If that’s the case, go ahead and adjust your outline.

Now, as you look at the information you’ve accumulated, try to pinpoint the most logical order to put this information in when writing the body of your piece. You will likely see certain facts that should be grouped together, so use headers and subheaders for those. Once you have a good idea of a logical order, go ahead and fill out the body of your outline.

Introduction

    Mid-1800’s definition of terms
    Related literature

Body

    Birth
    Family

      Siblings
      Adoption
      Mother’s death

    Education

Conclusion

    Concluding statement
    References and recommendations for further reading

Now you are ready to use your research paper outline to begin writing. Remember, as you write, you might get new ideas and insights. Don’t be afraid to tweak your outline to accommodate these new ideas.

Additional Tips for Your Research Paper Outline

I would be remiss not to insert my own personal note here. I personally never use such a “light” outline. I fill out all the sections with the important information I want to include in my paper, using bullet points. That way, everything is in one spot. I don’t have to keep going back and forth between my notes and my outline to find everything.

Yes, this is an additional step. Yes, it takes time. You may not want to do it. It is certainly a personal choice. But the advantage of filling in your outline completely is that you rarely have to look away from the outline for more information. You can simply build your paper section by section, using the completed outline as your guide.

Making a Formal Research Paper Outline

Occasionally, you will be asked to turn in a formal outline along with your paper. Up until now, we have only been talking about an informal outline. The formal outline “gussies up” your informal outline by using letters and numbers to distinguish the different sections and subsections of your paper. The most common is the number, letter, number pattern.

Major Sections

First, each major section of your outline is designated with a roman numeral:

I. Introduction

    Mid-1800’s definition of terms
    Related literature

II. Body

    Birth
    Family

      Siblings
      Adoption
      Mother’s death

    Education

III. Conclusion

    Concluding statement
    References and recommendations for further reading.

Heading and Subheadings

The headings and subheadings would then follow a capital letter, number pattern: capital letters for the headings, numbers for the subheadings. If you have a sub-subheading, use lowercase letters.

I. Introduction

    A. Mid-1800’s definition of terms
    B. Related literature

II. Body

    A. Birth
    B. Family

      1. Siblings
      2. Adoption

        a. Father’s abandonment
        b. Adoption by the Allens

      3. Mother’s death

    C. Education

III. Conclusion

    Concluding statement
    References and recommendations for further reading

Just remember the big number, big letter, little numbers, little letters pattern.

So there you have it, an easy way to make a research paper outline. Be sure to check out how to write a research paper. It’s full of great information!

P.S. Become a better writer. Find out more here.

2 Responses to How to Make a Research Paper Outline

  1. Joy Smith March 18, 2019 at 5:32 pm #

    This has definitely helped me on my outline for my research paper. Thanks!

    • Dawne DuCarpe
      Dawne DuCarpe April 3, 2019 at 6:34 am #

      I’m so pleased that it helped! Best of luck on your paper.


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