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While writing research papers is a common practice in college, it`s normally a daunting task for many students. Whether you are a first timer or not, writing a flawless research paper in any topic will not be a walk in the park. One of the best ways in simplifying the writing process is creating an outline. Though some see outlines as consuming tasks, they are invaluable tools since they help in structuring your paper and make it less overwhelming.


Before writing an outline, you will need to consider the following things first;


  • Topic outline or sentence outline- Choosing between the two approaches will be the first thing to do. If your research will deal with many issues that can be arranged in different forms, a topic outline is the best approach. Papers dealing with complex issues will require a sentence outline.
  • Alpha- numeric structure- This structure is used in most outlines. Identification and arrangement of the section levels involves a series of letters and numbers. The first level by Roman numerals, the second levels by capital letters, the third by numbers and the forth by lowercase letters.
  • Flexibility while writing the paper- Especially while dealing with an unfamiliar topic, you need to anticipate the possibility that your analysis will go in different directions. If the focus of your research changes, it necessitates the addition of new sections thus be flexible enough to reorganize your outline.
  • Capital and lowercase letters- In sentence outlines, headings and sub points are mostly written in correct sentence capitalization rules. In topic outlines, there are two schools of thought, one indicates that first level headings should be all in capital letters while the remaining headlines in standard sentence capitalization rules


The other indicates that the first level headings should only have the first letter of each word in capital, while remaining headings using standard sentence capitalization rules.


  • Chronology- Some papers require that you trace the history or chronology of events hence it`s important to arrange the outline in a similar manner.
  • Length- It should not run longer than one quarter to one fifth of your research paper. That is for a four to five page paper, you only need a single page outline while for a twenty page paper, it shouldn`t exceed four pages.

Various research papers require different complexities in the outline structures depending on the amount of information to deal with. This results in different types of outlines depending on the levels available.

This types of levels are;

  • One level outline- It only uses headings and no subheadings. They are labelled by roman numbers.

Note:    Since it is not specific and detailed, It`s not usually used in research papers but the outline is a good starting point in order to provide the general direction of the paper. Thereafter, you can expand upon it as the information flows in.

  • Two level outline-It utilizes headings and subheadings labelled by roman numeral and capital letters. It is a little more common for research papers.
  • Three level outline- This is more complex and more thorough in structure. In addition to the headings and subheadings, it also has the subsection. In each subsection, make sure to address the topic /main idea of the subheading.
  • Four level outlines- These are the most complex outlines. They have the fourth level subheadings in addition to the other three levels. In the fourth level subheading, it addresses supporting statements, citations and ideas that have been listed within the third level section`s paragraph.

To write an effective outline, before organizing your outline, make sure it satisfy the following requirements;

Ensure parallelism- This means that after choosing either the topic or sentence approaches, every headings and subheadings should be in the chosen format. It also refers to parts of speech and tense, for instance if your heading starts with a verb, all the rest must also start with a verb. Also, the verbs should be in the same tense.


Coordination of information-All major headings should identity to the major tasks from the research paper assignment while the subheadings should elaborate on the points from your research paper.


Subordination should be employed- Information in headings is normally generalized and your outline`s subheadings should address that by being more specific.


Division- Try as much as you can to divide major headings into two or more subheadings. However, more than a twelve subheadings under a single heading makes the outline appear cluttered.


Lastly, you can now organize your outline using the following guidelines-

  1. First identify your research problem and derive a thesis statement from it. The statement should be a single sentence and written above the outline. The title can also be derived from the problem.
  2. List down your main categories and main points. These should be found as part of your introduction and form part of all your major headings.
  • Ordering- Choose the best order in delivering the information. Generally, move from general to specific information. Your paper can also involve chronological or spatial arrangement.
  1. Major headings- The first heading is the introduction while the last heading is the conclusion. The rest are the main categories of the paper found in the body.
  2. Introduction-List the main points in your introduction.
  3. Body-Each main category/headings should be labelled by a short phrase. Supporting details can also be included and you can also include information from the third and fourth level outlines.
  • Conclusion - It shouldn't contain much information but you should have at least two sub points from your main heading.


Thank you so much! I’ll be back with more work next semester!

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