Writing a Research Paper: Creating a Working Outline

Below is a generalized model for a research paper outline:


  1. Introduction
    1. Definition, Description, and History (as appropriate)
    2. Statement of Purpose
    3. Information Sources (including research methods and materials)
    4. Working Definitions (if appropriate)
    5. Limitations of the Report (if appropriate)
    6. Scope of Coverage (sequence of major topics in the body)
  2. Body
    1. First Major Topic
      1. First subtopic of A
      2. Second subtopic of A
        1. First subtopic of 2
        2. Second subtopic of 2
          (And so on - subdivision carried as far as necessary)
    2. Second Major Topic
      (and so on)
  3. Conclusion (where everything is tied together)

A good outline also conforms to the following guidelines:

  • It obeys the "rule of two": each main topic should contain at least two subtopics; subtopics, if followed by sub-subtopics, should again contain at least two.
  • It avoids overlap: each topic addresses a distinct idea.
  • It maintains coherence: subtopics and sub-subtopics relate directly to their major topics, rather than leading reader and writer off on tempting tangents.
  • It maintains internal parallelism: all items at any given level are grammatically-similar
  • It provides clear and informative headings

By the time you have created an effective formal outline, you will be ready to write a first draft of your paper. Indeed, many writers work from rough, skeletal outlines to create first, exploratory drafts, and only then, after revising those drafts, do they commit themselves to a formal outline.

Note, too, that some writers do not find the need to use a formal outline; by the time they have created a first draft from their initial, organizational skeleton, they are ready to stick with that draft, revising and fine-tuning it, until they feel they have accomplished their purpose.

Examples of completed effective formal outlines: