BlogThe Writing ProcessHow to Develop a Good Research Paper Outline

How to Develop a Good Research Paper Outline

Jennifer Xue
Staff Blogger at ProWritingAid and Corporate Content Specialist
Published Mar 27, 2020

Research

Writing is an essential part of the college experience.

This notion is supported by Andrea A. Lunsford, a Stanford scholar in the field of composition and rhetoric studies and author of "Cognitive Development and the Basic Writer" in College English journal, who posited that writing is necessary to improve overall cognitive skills. Writing research papers is also key to measuring subject mastery.

In this article, we'll discuss how to create a proper outline for your research paper, and why this process will both ensure high quality and make your life easier.

Contents:
  1. What Is an Outline?
  2. Why Outlining Is Important
  3. How to Develop a Good Outline
  4. Use Your Thesis Statement
  5. What to Include in Your Outline
  6. Formatting
  7. References
  8. Good Outlining Leads to Good Research Papers

What Is an Outline?

An outline is like a to-do list. It serves as an organizer of ideas and thoughts that you'd like to put into the paper. It's structured in a way that each point is covered, so the process of paper writing becomes easier and more efficient.

Just like the skeleton of our body, an outline serves a similar purpose: to provide structure. Without a good structure, you might not be able to present your research findings in a manner that's academically acceptable and robust to analysis. The outlining process occurs after the research has been completed (or is well underway), but before the actual writing up of the paper.

Why Outlining Is Important

As well as helping with organization, ease, and efficiency, an outline creates a framework for your paper. It allows you to better understand the flow of information in your research and ensures completeness.

The research paper itself aims to state your position on the subject and provide well-documented, accurate, and truthful findings in a structured way. Behind every high-quality report is a good outline.

How to Develop a Good Outline

Start the development of your outline by thinking through the purpose of your paper. Okay, it may be a requirement for passing your course or degree, but it's also a personal goal. Think through your contribution to scientific research, technology, understanding interpersonal relationships, or whatever your field happens to be. Find out what matters to you, and write it on a piece of paper or desktop sticky note.

Next, determine your target audience: the readers of the research paper. Most likely, they're academic professors, fellow scholars, university students, and researchers. Consider the readers' prior knowledge on the topic and understanding of jargon. What questions are likely to be asked? How would you answer those questions? It is worth thinking about whether these are valuable enough to address in the research discussion.

Top tip: a good source for paper and essay writing is Purdue University Online Writing Lab (OWL). Whenever you feel stuck when working on a paper, review this valuable resource.

Use Your Thesis Statement

According to The Writing Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, your thesis statement is the road map for your research paper and clearly tells the reader what to expect from it. It's usually a single sentence placed at the beginning of the paper that presents your argument concisely.

Start by stating your argument. Decide upon the primary goal of your thesis statement. Can it provoke further discussion on the subject? Based on this statement, how would you design your research paper?

Put your thesis statement at the top of your research paper outline. It should give a clear direction from the beginning to the end.

What to Include in Your Outline

In general, an outline consists of five parts: introduction, methods, results, discussion, and conclusion. Those are the primary points. Under each section, you'll then create a layer of secondary points. You may even add a third, fourth or fifth layer for more detailed sections.

Introduction

Usually, the first line of the introduction will be your thesis statement. The rest of the introduction covers the importance, goals, and overview of your paper. This section can be quite challenging for new writers because you need to judge the extent to which your research is meaningful to the scientific community and/or the general public. It's sometimes easier to outline this section last, once you know what the rest of the structure will look like.

Methods

This part includes the scope and the analysis of methods used in performing the research, which can be qualitative or quantitative. If you use a combination of methods, discuss each method separately in secondary pointers. Overall, this section explains how you conduct the research and why the methods are valid (thus, the results are likely to be accurate).

Results

In this section, you report the results for each method used. This doesn't mean the conclusion of the research. If it's active experimentation, for instance, explain how it was conducted and the raw outcome. If it's quantitative, the results need to be mathematically correct. If it's qualitative, the results should answer the underlying questions, but they won't yet be drawn into conclusions.

Discussion

In this part, you describe the contribution of your results to the subject knowledge base, and the significance of each result in an explanatory, analytical, and argumentative manner. You might want to include relevant citations from references that you've reviewed to support your viewpoints.

Conclusion

Summate the objectives of the paper by listing significant findings, sharing implications of such findings, and inviting further research within a recommended scope. This is where you present a well-thought-through final argument, including whether the hypothesis was correct or incorrect, and how the research can be used as the foundation of future research.

Formatting

Formatting an outline is very simple. Follow the sequence of headings used above, using roman numerals (I, II, III, etc.) for the primary points, capital letters (A, B, C, etc.) for the secondary points, and numbers (1, 2, 3, etc.) for any tertiary points.

References

These don't need to be included in your outline. In the actual paper, you might need to choose between using in-text citations or footnotes when citing sources from books, journals, and online references depending on your research adviser and the adopted guidelines. You should include a reference or bibliography at the end of your paper.

In U.S. academic settings, most likely you'll be assigned to follow one out of these three style guidelines:

  • APA Style
  • MLA Style
  • Chicago Style

Even if not applying these at the outline stage, it's a good time to check which one you'll be using so that you can make accurate citations from when you first start writing.

Good Outlining Leads to Good Research Papers

In conclusion, developing a good research paper outline is imperative for producing a well-structured and well-argued paper. You can review your thesis statement and see how your ideas are presented, the overall flow of the paper, and the strength of your argument before you start investing all your thoughts into writing. You can catch any fundamental errors before spending too much time. In a nutshell, having an outline allow you to focus, direct the flow, maintain balance, and ensure completeness.

Develop a good outline for your research paper to help ease the writing process. You'll be glad that you did.

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Jennifer Xue
Staff Blogger at ProWritingAid and Corporate Content Specialist

Jennifer Xue is an award-winning e-book author with 2,500+ articles and 100+ e-books/reports published under her belt. She also taught 50+ college-level essay and paper writing classes. Her byline has appeared in Forbes, Fortune, Cosmopolitan, Esquire, Business.com, Business2Community, Addicted2Success, Good Men Project, and others. Her blog is JenniferXue.com. Follow her on Twitter @jenxuewrites.

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