The research paper is among the most time-consuming and complicated writing assignments. Spending hours on an outline seems counterproductive to most students. Why waste time on navel-gazing when you can jump straight into writing? There are multiple reasons you should start with a research paper outline. It guarantees that you:
- Get a higher grade. Without a plan in mind, a lengthy research paper turns into a tangle of unrelated ideas and notes. You can write yourself into a corner without realizing it and get a poor grade because of the lack of proper structure. An outline serves as a map to guide you throughout the research path, avoiding swamps, quicksands, and dead ends.
- Save time. If you catch the brain-dump of the disorganized paper before submitting it to the professor, you’ll have to spend much time on editing and rewriting to make the research presentable. A couple of extra hours you spend outlining will shave days off the post-writing routine.
- Feel confident. Without an outline, you will doubt your every point along the way. You might want to add new data and strike out entire sections you’ve already completed. These uncertainties are hard on your nerves, making you jumpy and irritated. A single-page outline will save you the trouble and instill the sense of confidence that won’t leave you until your professor gives you the grade you deserve.
- Keep on track. Procrastination hits the hardest when the deadlines are long. Without an outline and interim deadlines, you’ll find thousands of better things to do with your time. Writing a research paper in two days is a sure way to unsatisfactory grades. Add your interim writing goals to the outline to stay realistic and complete the assignment to the best of your ability.
With these advantages in mind, you must be eager to learn the best way to outline the paper before writing. We’ll share the best structuring tips, warn you about the mistakes to avoid and share useful examples worthy of modeling. Our writers have personally tested each of the points we share and use them in their daily writing routines. You can trust our advice and implement it as you go.
How to Write an Outline for a Research Paper
Research paper structure is similar to that of an article in a scientific journal. Though some publishing houses pose unique requirements, most ask the authors to follow a standard outline. We’ll go over all sections and explain their significance and best practices.
It’s a short introductory passage explaining:
- Why should your study be of importance to its intended audience?
- What are the goals and expected results of your work?
- How will the paper be organized?
The third aspect is not always necessary for relatively short research papers. Consult your professor whether you should include it.
Students often add this part of the research outline to the introductory section. However, most professors expect you to detail it separately. This part reflects the work you put into researching credible references to support your topic.
More sources do not equal a higher grade. Instead of filling this section with quotes and citations, browse available references and choose those that offer the most valuable and reliable data. Remember to summarize and paraphrase instead of quoting unless your reasoning relies on the exact phrasing of the source.
You can’t leave this section out, as it provides the frame of reference for readers and justifies your results. Start with narrowing the scope of your research to prevent ambiguity. Apply filters to go from the broad subject to an exact research question. You can narrow the scope by:
- Location. Study the issue in select countries, states, cities, or neighborhoods.
- Time. Research the changes within a specific time period: century, decade, year, month, or week.
- Angle. Dismiss all aspects of the problem except the one that aligns with your focus, it can be economical, financial, cultural, religious, social, etc.
Describe the materials and research methods you apply. Don’t go into detail, instead, summarize the methods and cite their authors.
Present the findings of the paper without interpreting them. If you’ve conducted several experiments or studies, dedicate separate subsections to them. This part should include data, statistics, graphs, diagrams, etc. Leave the interpretation of the data for the next part of the research paper.
Analyze the data you have included in the Results section of the paper. Describe your analytical approach and present the conclusions drawn from the raw data. Revisit your hypothesis and explain which results confirm and refute it.
Do not confuse the results and discussion parts. You can merge them into one by presenting data and its analysis. However, you can’t include results only without analysis or the discussion without the data.
Despite being one of the shortest sections, the powerful conclusion is the key to getting a high grade on your research paper. It’s not enough to restate your hypothesis and complete it with a final thought as you would in an essay. To achieve the high impact, include these items in the research paper conclusion:
- The overview of the study goals and approach.
- The brief description of the significant results achieved.
- The critical implications of the research results.
- The necessary further research to broaden the understanding of the issue.
Creating a Research Outline Step-by-Step
Now that you know the essential sections that make a perfect research paper, it’s time to develop the outline. We’ll share the quickest and easiest way to go from a blank screen to a perfectly structured plan.
- Create a list of the six sections we’ve shared above (from the introduction to the conclusion). Now add a few extra details to each point. For example, you can expand your “Research approach” section to read “Research approach for the assessment of the urban air quality on the number of asthma patients”.
- Now add the second level to your outline. Add subheadings for each of the first-level sections to demonstrate the critical aspects you wish to discuss. The subheadings should be more detailed than the first-level headings. At the same time, they should be of comparable importance and value. Academic advisors recommend dividing each section into three or more subsections.
For example, in the Literature overview sections, you can add 3 or 4 subheadings covering the issues of the correlations between air quality and overall health condition of urban citizens, the lack of reliable data on the number of asthma patients, the increase of respiratory disorders since the beginning of the industrial revolution, etc.
Here is a two-level paper outline example created through this approach:
- Pause and read the outline you’ve created so far. Make sure everything seems logical, and the outline flows from one section to the other without unnecessary repetitions and inconsistencies. Shuffle the subheadings around until everything makes sense. If some issues are less important than others and don’t fit well with bigger subsections, you can add them to the deeper level on the next step.
- Add another level to your outline by diving subsections into paragraphs. Each new subheading should be a topic sentence. All other sentences in the passage will support it. If the subsections are small enough to be discussed in a single paragraph, you don’t need to add a third level of headings. For example, subsections within the introduction can fit into three passages at most, depicting the motivation behind the research, its goals, and structure.
- Once again pause to assess the outline. Repeat the process of reading, analyzing, and improving the outline at this stage.
- Fill in the fourth level of the outline with supporting statements, data, or references. They are necessary for all parts of the paper, besides the introduction and conclusion. You can skip this step if you haven’t collected all the data yet. However, the fourth level of the outline adds the “meat” to the bare bones of the structure. Ideally, each paragraph should have two or more supporting references. Otherwise, you are just copying the work of others instead of putting in intellectual effort to synthesize new knowledge.
Adding citations, data, quotes, and other details make it easier to begin putting the study on paper and keep going. Essentially, the four-level structure helps you beat procrastination and perfectionism. You’ve already got half the work done, now all you need to do is turn on your writing talent and fill the gaps.
This step-by-step technique is suitable for all topics of the research paper. Whether you study Finance, Law (good law topics on click), Medicine, or Humanities, the four-level outline will get you the perfect results every time. You just have to find the will to go through the process until the end without stopping at the first or second level.
Outlining Mistakes to Avoid
When you first learn how to do an outline for a research paper, the theory doesn’t translate into practice well. As with any other skill you master, mistakes are inevitable. Here’s our list of common errors in outlining and how to avoid them:
- Use full sentences for every outline level. This technique will provide you with extra details and make writing easier as you can keep the sentences in the final draft. However, writing such an outline takes more time and requires more effort. It’s not the best option for perfectionists who need to get everything right at the first try. To save time and stay sane while outlining, use short phrases or individual words as your points. Even a single word is often enough to guide your writing and remind you of the arguments you wanted to make.
- Outline a research paper like an essay. A simple three-act structure of introduction + body + conclusion is not enough to plan extensive research. Your paper should be longer and deeper than an average 5-paragraph essay. It’s not enough to jot a single phrase for every passage and proceed to writing. Instead, follow the proper structure we’ve outlined above. You can skip or combine the parts, but their order should remain the same.
- Separate literature research, note-taking, and outlining. If you read the sources first, then go through them again to take notes, and finally make time for structuring them, you will waste weeks. Try combining the three activities into one. Once you get into the rhythm, the timesaving benefits will be huge! If you use digital books and articles, create a Trello board and a column for each section or subsection. Copy the data from the references to separate cards. Don’t forget to include the name of the source, the page number, and a hyperlink or the file. Shuffle the cards as you go, creating a crude outline of the paper. This way you can assess the structure at a glance and immediately see the parts that require extra research or supporting data. If you prefer the old-fashioned pen and paper approach, you can still use this technique, using post-it notes and a notice board or a decoration-free section of the wall.
- Underestimate the power of visual aid. Detailed outlines for lengthy research papers can take two pages or more. It’s easy to get lost and miss critical points within the list. If you are a visual thinker and wonder how to do a research paper outline to make it easy to read and follow, use mind mapping. Try free online tools or get out a notepad with a pencil. Center your research question and add branches to indicate your first-level outline items. For every sub-level, add new arms and title them. In the end, you’ll have a start-shaped diagram that will allow you to evaluate the structure in a few seconds. It will also serve as a great tool to prepare for a presentation if you have to give one on the topic of your research.
Research Paper Outline Help
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