How to Write a Research Paper Outline

Many students learning how to author reports will benefit from first learning how to write a research paper outline. Research paper outlines are detailed plans of a article’s organization and content. They contain in brief form most of the important information that the report will include and present it in the order in which the information will appear in the project itself. Therefore, the process of learning how to write research paper outlines is good preparation for writing research papers because it forces the student to organize her information in a coherent and academic fashion.

There are varying approaches regarding how to write a research paper outline. However, most of these approaches involve organizing the outline in a general-to-specific order. In other words, the outline should begin by providing background information about the topic and presenting the writer’s thesis—her main point or argument about that topic—before proceeding to provide detailed information or specific claims. This background information should be the first item of the outline, and should be labeled “1 (or I, if Roman numerals are preferred) Introduction.” This is the first item of the outline because the introduction will be the first component of the document.

After section 1 or I, there will be one or more sections that constitute the development component of the report outline. The development will turn into the main body of the document—the largest and most detailed part of the report, in which the student’s thesis is explored and defended. The number of sections for the development component of the outline will depend on the number of primary categories the report will contain. For instance, if the report was on global warming and the thesis was that there are simple things businesses can do to counter the effects of global warming, there would likely be separate development sections in the outline for each of the student’s major points about the things businesses can do to combat global warming. For instance, the student may have a section titled “Reducing Business Waste,” another on “Using Renewable Energy,” and another on “Providing Incentives to Employees to Be Green.”

It is common for students learning how to write research paper outlines to correctly determine the main subjects of the outline, but then neglect to fill out the information that will be discussed in those sections. Each main section should contain several points that will contribute to the development of that particular section and, thereby, the thesis. For instance, under the section “Reducing Business Waste,” the student may discuss implementing recycling and composting programs, looking for ways to reduce fuel and water consumption, and eliminating excess materials.

Often, students who are learning how to write research paper outlines fail to note where they are going to cite sources of investigation. A research paper outline differs from an outline for a document in that it needs to indicate where secondary sources are going to be discussed. A research paper is, after all, based on research. It will therefore rely on research for the development of most of its points. The outline should note where this research will be discussed by including in the outline the last name of the author or authors that will be cited in each particular section. Thus, a partial outline may look as follows:

I. Introduction

  1. Background of global warming (Smith; Michaels; Alexander)
  2. Contributions of businesses to global warming (Gore; Elsit)
  3. Thesis statement: “There are simple things businesses can do to counter the effects of global warming.”

II. Reducing Business Waste

  1. Implementing recycling program (Green Living; Gary)
  2. Implementing composting program (Ecosave; Carter)
  3. Reducing fuel consumption (Nelson; Greens; Tuli)
  4. Reducing water consumption (Committee on Conservation)
  5. Eliminating excess (Neils; Gurue; Trand)

Students should know that there is no “right” or “wrong” approach to how to write a research paper outline. The outline is for the student’s use only; therefore, the focus should be on getting the information down in an organized fashion so that the pupil can then write a reference project. The outline need not be a perfect text.