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A Guide on How to Write a Research Paper Outline

Wonder how to write a research paper outline?

Don't worry because you are not the only one who can't figure it out. First of all, let's make sure you understand what a research paper outline is. Generally speaking, it is a logical organization of a text, including its parts, paragraphs, and subparagraphs. Here are some tips for writing a research paper outline which will surely help. It should have the titles of paragraphs and subparagraphs of the text, an introductory part and conclusion. It reflects the sections your research will have. You compose an outline to make sure that you don't miss some important thoughts and that everything is well-structured. As soon as your paper is ready, you should proofread and edit the outline. An outline for a research paper is as important as the paper itself. Many students miss this step, diminishing its overall impact. Use our research paper outline guide to learn how to outline a research paper.


The structure of a research paper outline

Writing an outline for a research paper, check the requirements of your professor. Include all subtopics you are going to discuss, and make sure each has arguments and counterarguments to reflect your main idea.

If making outline is a part of your assignment, follow the instructions you were given. They can contain hints concerning the outline strategies and the type of the outline for particularly your paper.

Your thesis statement should reflect the topic, the general idea of the paper and have the author's comment showing their opinion on the matter.

In case the outline is written for your purposes only, make sure to organize it as you see fit. You can include as many details as you want. It is also logical to write a more detailed outline for yourself even if the requirements are different.

Prepare a draft variant of the outline.

Having finished writing, proofread it and make sure it's logically structured.

Research paper outline format

When it comes to the outline format for a research paper, you can use many strategies, selection of which depends on the topic and your teacher's instructions. Some of the most common types is an outline with letters or (and) numbers. Outline covers main ideas, subtopics, subdivisions and its details. The more points you want to include, the more complex outline you'll have.

You can use full sentences to make the title of each outline part. As a rule, it will be one of the first sentences in the paragraph or any corresponding section which reflects the main idea of the passage. You can also use shorter writing phrases which inform the reader about the content. It is very common for the APA style.

  • Use Roman letters to represent the heading with the main topics
  • Use uppercase letters for subtopics
  • Use Arabic numbers to represent details (part of a subtopic)
  • Use lowercase letters for points within subparts

Working on academic assignments, you will meet several common styles, such as APA, MLA, Harvard Business Style, Chicago Turabian, etc. These styles are used in academic writing, and each of them has its peculiar features and rules to follow. Your teacher will check your paper's compliance with these rules, and in case you couldn't follow them or missed something, it will be reflected in your grade. Typically, APA and MLA academic styles are mostly used in the Humanities and Social Sciences. Both of them have a lot of differences starting from citation rules to the way you write the author's name. Sometimes it can influence the way you structure your papers.

How to create an APA research paper outline

If you have to write using the APA format, you should follow the general rules of creating the outline. It starts with a title which you are to write in uppercase letters. Next step is ordering your topics and sub-topics. Point out the main thesis you are covering and add other details into subheadings. As a variant, you can create a list of possible outline headings, and then, in the process of writing or even at the last stages, you could choose the most appropriate options. The outline has to show the logical flow of your ideas. Hence, each main heading and corresponding sub-headings should contain only essential information. In most of the cases, APA research paper outline is created using Roman numerals, capital and lowercase letters to add more sub-headings if it is needed.

Specific features of an MLA research paper outline

The way you create MLA research paper outline is a bit different. Here, you don't need a title page. You'll have a header with your name, name of your teacher or instructor, the course and the date. Write the word "Outline" in the center of the page. You should start with the thesis of the paper, so do not begin using subheadings. The outline for an MLA paper follows standard rules, so you start with Roman numerals, then uppercase letters, Arabic numerals and lowercase letters if needed. It is better to use full sentence outline structure, in case your paper should be formatted in MLA.

Research paper outline example

Regardless of the core idea, your outline should have an introduction, where you give some background information about your topic, relevance of your research and thesis statement. In the main body, you present your arguments and ideas, and in conclusion, you introduce general results of your research. Don't forget to add the references to the sources you used.

Example: Human trafficking research paper outline

If your topic is about human trafficking, you will need to create an outline. This is how an outline of a human trafficking research paper may look.

  • I. Introduction
  • A. What is human trafficking?
  • B. Main causes of human trafficking
  • II. The current global situation with human trafficking
  • A. Demographics of human trafficking
  • B. Social conditions of the most vulnerable subgroups
  • III. Fighting human trafficking
  • A. Penalties for human traffickers
  • B. Ways of victim protection and rehabilitation
  • C. International cooperation
  • IV. Conclusion

Example: Gun control research paper outline

Depending on the aspect you are to research, the outline may vary, as these are just general guidelines.

  • I. Introduction
  • A. Background information. History and government laws.
  • B. The controversy over gun control nowadays
  • II. The US constitutional right to keep and bear firearms
  • A. Guns provide protection
  • B. The gun bans will cause more crimes
  • III. Gun control will reduce unjustified deaths
  • A. Mental health crisis and gun control issue
  • B. School and mass shootings - can we prevent them?
  • C. The importance of gun control in a modern society
  • IV. Conclusion

Outlining Plan

As you already know, an outline is a short version of your paper, which allows the reader to become aware of what you will talk about in your essay. That is why it's crucial to write a comprehensive layout to improve the reader's understanding of your subject. To perfect the outline, list each paragraph's topic sentence. It will be a great way to assure that every section serves an exact purpose.

Outline for Lengthy Papers

With the above, you can familiarize yourself with an outline in both APA and MLA formatting styles. However, if the task you are assigned is extensive, the outline will have an additional point. In other words, you have to insert a paragraph concerning background information right after your introductory paragraph.

In this section, you should provide the reader with crucial information regarding the topic. Considering the paper's word count, you should introduce the audience to the subject. Apart from that, don't forget to attach parentheses to every written point.

Structure of the Research Paper Outline

First and foremost, it is essential to identify a widely agreed essay structure, including a research paper outline. Your written discourse must stick to the following order of points: the Introduction, Body, Conclusion. Let's have a closer look at each of them.


This part of your essay provides necessary information without which the reader won't be aware of what the topic is about. Please note that the background information will be placed in different places to compare a short paper with an extended one. As for the former, one will find it in the introduction. Whereas the latter has a standalone section where this information is placed.

The first paragraph should begin with your topic, terms that relate to your subject, and other chief items to prepare the audience for your last sentence, which is a thesis statement.

Thesis statement

This sentence must demonstrate the primary purpose of the entire essay. It is the most critical part of your work, as each and every following section will go back to it, follow, and develop stated points.


Simply put, this paragraph overviews history events, the current situation of relevant information, etc. The main goal of Background is to ensure the reader your research is crucial and boost people's expertise regarding a specific topic.

Body (main points and subpoints)

The next vital bricks are body paragraphs. Highlighting significant ideas, you approach the conclusion steadily. Remember to include scholarly material that correlates with the central argument of your research paper.

Subpoints aim to show less important yet crucial aspects related to focal concepts. They are optional; however, they will always get you a lot of credit if the word limit allows you to add them.


Like every conclusion, it aspires to restate a thesis, helping the reader retain useful information. However, do not regurgitate a hypothesis. Rephrase it, emphasize the significance of your research, its implications, and explain the importance of continuing the research.

Need research paper outline help?

Now you know the main differences between the APA and MLA outlines. We hope this short article will help you structure your paper so that you won't miss any important ideas. However, creating an outline might seem a bit difficult, especially if you have never tried to do that before. In case you need help with research paper outline or some help with academic writing, feel free to use our services.

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