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How to Create a Structured Research Paper Outline | Example

Published on August 7, 2022 by Courtney Gahan . Revised on August 15, 2023.

How to Create a Structured Research Paper Outline

A research paper outline is a useful tool to aid in the writing process , providing a structure to follow with all information to be included in the paper clearly organized.

A quality outline can make writing your research paper more efficient by helping to:

  • Organize your thoughts
  • Understand the flow of information and how ideas are related
  • Ensure nothing is forgotten

A research paper outline can also give your teacher an early idea of the final product.

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Table of contents

Research paper outline example, how to write a research paper outline, formatting your research paper outline, language in research paper outlines.

  • Definition of measles
  • Rise in cases in recent years in places the disease was previously eliminated or had very low rates of infection
  • Figures: Number of cases per year on average, number in recent years. Relate to immunization
  • Symptoms and timeframes of disease
  • Risk of fatality, including statistics
  • How measles is spread
  • Immunization procedures in different regions
  • Different regions, focusing on the arguments from those against immunization
  • Immunization figures in affected regions
  • High number of cases in non-immunizing regions
  • Illnesses that can result from measles virus
  • Fatal cases of other illnesses after patient contracted measles
  • Summary of arguments of different groups
  • Summary of figures and relationship with recent immunization debate
  • Which side of the argument appears to be correct?

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See an example

outline ideas for research paper

Follow these steps to start your research paper outline:

  • Decide on the subject of the paper
  • Write down all the ideas you want to include or discuss
  • Organize related ideas into sub-groups
  • Arrange your ideas into a hierarchy: What should the reader learn first? What is most important? Which idea will help end your paper most effectively?
  • Create headings and subheadings that are effective
  • Format the outline in either alphanumeric, full-sentence or decimal format

There are three different kinds of research paper outline: alphanumeric, full-sentence and decimal outlines. The differences relate to formatting and style of writing.

  • Alphanumeric
  • Full-sentence

An alphanumeric outline is most commonly used. It uses Roman numerals, capitalized letters, arabic numerals, lowercase letters to organize the flow of information. Text is written with short notes rather than full sentences.

  • Sub-point of sub-point 1

Essentially the same as the alphanumeric outline, but with the text written in full sentences rather than short points.

  • Additional sub-point to conclude discussion of point of evidence introduced in point A

A decimal outline is similar in format to the alphanumeric outline, but with a different numbering system: 1, 1.1, 1.2, etc. Text is written as short notes rather than full sentences.

  • 1.1.1 Sub-point of first point
  • 1.1.2 Sub-point of first point
  • 1.2 Second point

To write an effective research paper outline, it is important to pay attention to language. This is especially important if it is one you will show to your teacher or be assessed on.

There are four main considerations: parallelism, coordination, subordination and division.

Parallelism: Be consistent with grammatical form

Parallel structure or parallelism is the repetition of a particular grammatical form within a sentence, or in this case, between points and sub-points. This simply means that if the first point is a verb , the sub-point should also be a verb.

Example of parallelism:

  • Include different regions, focusing on the different arguments from those against immunization

Coordination: Be aware of each point’s weight

Your chosen subheadings should hold the same significance as each other, as should all first sub-points, secondary sub-points, and so on.

Example of coordination:

  • Include immunization figures in affected regions
  • Illnesses that can result from the measles virus

Subordination: Work from general to specific

Subordination refers to the separation of general points from specific. Your main headings should be quite general, and each level of sub-point should become more specific.

Example of subordination:

Division: break information into sub-points.

Your headings should be divided into two or more subsections. There is no limit to how many subsections you can include under each heading, but keep in mind that the information will be structured into a paragraph during the writing stage, so you should not go overboard with the number of sub-points.

Ready to start writing or looking for guidance on a different step in the process? Read our step-by-step guide on how to write a research paper .

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Gahan, C. (2023, August 15). How to Create a Structured Research Paper Outline | Example. Scribbr. Retrieved January 4, 2024, from https://www.scribbr.com/research-paper/outline/

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Courtney Gahan

Courtney Gahan

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Getting started with your research paper outline

outline ideas for research paper

Levels of organization for a research paper outline

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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.

A research paper outline typically contains between two and four layers of organization. The first two layers are the most generalized. 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.

This is the most generalized 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

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 organization.

  • A. Background information
  • B. Hypothesis or thesis
  • A. Supporting topic
  • B. Supporting topic

The third level of organization 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.

  • 1. Relevant history
  • 2. Relevant history
  • 1. The hypothesis or thesis clearly stated
  • 1. A brief description of supporting information
  • 2. A brief description of supporting information

The fourth level of organization 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 organization because the information contained here is the most specific.

  • a) Quotes or references to another piece of literature
  • b) Quotes or references to another piece of literature

Tip: The key to creating a useful outline is to be consistent in your headings, organization, and levels of specificity.

  • Be Consistent : ensure every heading has a similar tone. State the topic or write short sentences for each heading but avoid doing both.
  • Organize Information : Higher levels of organization are more generally stated and each supporting level becomes more specific. The introduction and conclusion will never be lower than the first level of organization.
  • 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.

By now, you should know the basic requirements to create an outline for your 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.

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After completing your outline, you should:

  • 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.
  • Format your draft appropriately . MLA 8 and APA 7 formats have differences between their bibliography page, in-text citations, line spacing, and title.
  • Finalize your citations and bibliography . Use a reference manager like Paperpile to organize and cite your research.
  • Write the abstract, if required . An abstract will briefly state the information contained within the paper, results of the research, and the conclusion.

An outline is used to organize written ideas about a topic into a logical order. Outlines help us organize major topics, subtopics, and supporting details. Researchers benefit greatly from outlines while writing by addressing which topic to cover in what order.

The most basic outline format consists of: an introduction, a minimum of three topic paragraphs, and a conclusion.

You should make an outline before starting to write your research paper. This will help you organize the main ideas and arguments you want to present in your topic.

  • Consistency: ensure every heading has a similar tone. State the topic or write short sentences for each heading but avoid doing both.
  • Organization : Higher levels of organization are more generally stated and each supporting level becomes more specific. The introduction and conclusion will never be lower than the first level of organization.
  • 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.

outline ideas for research paper

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