Biology

Outlining a Research Paper

Outlining is an important step in organizing a paper. When done well, it clearly shows the relationships

between ideas in your paper and provides a plan for writing. It also helps you to think about your topic

and to reach the level of synthesis and evaluation in learning. Further, it can help you to determine

whether you have researched the topic thoroughly. Finally, it can help you to determine whether the

paper makes a convincing argument, before you spend time agonizing over grammar, sentence structure,

word choice, and transitional sentences (etc.).

Before continuing, I should mention what you should do before serious outlining. Some important

activities that are generally done prior to outlining include extensive reading, taking notes on important

ideas (with citations), brainstorming and listing ideas, grouping related ideas together, ordering groups

from general to specific (abstract to concrete). After you have done a lot of these activities, you are ready

to start outlining. (You may need to revisit these activities as you outline, whenever you need to come up

with new ideas and material for your writing).

Once you are ready to start outlining, follow the guide below. When you are first learning to outline, it is

best to start with a one level outline and increase the detail. Hence, this guide is written to facilitate that.

A One Level Outline

Start with a one level outline. A common basic one-level outline is shown below:

I Introduction

II Literature review

III Discussion

IV Conclusions

Using the above outline as a guide, create a one level outline for your paper by making the topic headings

more detailed. For example, instead of “Literature review”, a more detailed heading could be “Literature

review on the impacts of community design on air quality.” After providing details, read your outline.

Does it flow clearly and provide a structure to build a complete paper around your chosen topic. If not,

refine it. When it does, move to a two level outline.

A Two Level Outline

A two level outline is made up of headings for sections and subsection of a paper. A heading is a short

phrase that describes the topic area of the section or subsection represented. A basic, two-level outline

with many of the common elements in a research paper is shown below:

2

I Introduction

A. Motivation (Why this work is important)

B. Objectives (Goals of this paper) or Thesis Statement

C. Organizational overview of paper

II Literature Review

A. Heading for topic area A

B. Heading for topic area B

C. Heading for topic area C

D. Heading for topic area D

D. Heading for methods used for third major task

III Discussion (How results contribute to knowledge in the field, e.g. compare results to literature)

A. Heading for discussion topic E

B. Heading for discussion topic F

C. Heading for discussion topic G

IV Conclusions

A. Summary of objectives and approach of this paper

B. Major findings of this paper

C. Important implications of this paper’s findings (e.g. for policy)

D. Needed future work in the field

Parent headings of an outline (e.g. I, II, III, IV, V, VI here) should represent topics that are more general

and more important than sublevels under them. Sublevels of an outline (e.g. A, B, C, D here) should be

more detailed than the parent heading they are under. Topics at the same level should be the same

importance as each other. A good rule of thumb is that the heading phrase should get longer as the

outline level is more embedded. Each section or subsection of an outline should be divided into at least 2

parts. It is good practice to use parallel grammatical structures for headings of the same level.

Using the above outline as a guide, increase the level of your previous outline by one. In other words,

replace the general topic headings used above with specific heading phrases that are relevant to your

paper’s topic. (Some description of the meanings of the headings listed above are provided in

parentheses). After specifying your headings, read your outline. Does it flow clearly and provide a

structure to build a complete paper around your chosen topic? If not, reorganize the subsections and

refine your outline. When it does, move to a three level outline.

A Three Level Outline

A three level outline is made up of headings for sections, subsection, and paragraphs of a paper.

Paragraph headings should provide the topic sentence (or phrase) that all sentences in the paragraph will

support. The structure of a three-level outline is shown below:

I Introduction

A. Motivation to study this topic

B. Objectives or Thesis of this paper

C. Organizational overview of paper

II Literature Review

A. Heading for topic area A

1. Paragraph topic

2. Paragraph topic

3. Paragraph topic

B. Heading for topic area B

1. Paragraph topic

2. Paragraph topic

3. Paragraph topic

III Discussion

A. Heading for discussion Topic E

1. Paragraph topic

2. Paragraph topic

B. Heading for discussion Topic F

1. Paragraph topic

2. Paragraph topic

IV Conclusions

A. Summary of objectives and approach of this paper

B. Major findings of this paper

C. Important implications of this paper’s findings

D. Needed future work in the field

Some subheadings are paragraphs themselves, hence no subheadings for paragraphs are needed. This is

shown above for the Introduction and Conclusion sections.

Using the above outline as a guide, increase the level of your previous outline by one. After specifying

your paragraph topic sentences, read through your outline. Does it flow clearly and provide a structure to

build a complete paper around your chosen topic? If not, reorganize your paragraphs (and subsections, if

needed).

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