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Writing Tip # 3
Outlining Your Research Paper

By Dr. Thelma T. Reyna
The Writing Pros

Congratulations! You’ve completed the two most basic requirements of writing a quality research paper:

  • limiting/narrowing your topic to an appropriate one your paper can discuss substantially;
  • identifying your “argument,” or research thesis/research hypothesis for your paper.

In addition, you also most likely have a good working title at this point. Now you’re ready to tackle the third most important part of preparing your research paper: outlining.

Why Is Outlining So Important?

Like a road map for a traveler, an outline keeps you on track. It shows each important step of your research journey and your ultimate destination. Like a traveler’s map, sometimes a change in itinerary becomes necessary. For good reasons, you may need to add some locations to your stops along the way, some important sites that must be examined. Sometimes, conversely, a traveler must delete some parts of the trip, also for good reason. In other words, though a road map is vital because it provides the “big picture” of your journey, sometimes changes in the routes must occur. Similarly, in writing a research paper, an outline gives you the “big picture” of your journey but may also be subject to needed changes along the way.

Despite this flexibility, an outline is crucial for quality research work. It provides good organization, clear direction, and focus to your paper.

How Do I Make an Outline?

You have options. The “classic,” or traditional, outlines are basically two different types: a full-sentence outline; and a topic (or phrases) outline.

Because writing a sentence outline is more time-consuming and more challenging overall (each line item, or idea, in the outline must be a complete sentence), I don’t recommend it for most papers, research or otherwise. It looks and feels “clunky” and takes up much more space than is needed. I believe that the fewer words one uses to express ideas, the better the writing is.

I recommend the topic outline. As its name implies, this basically organizes your major ideas, points, or topics in simple phrases (two or more words that are not complete sentences).  Sometimes a line item in your outline can be simply one word. This type of outline does the job of organizing your points to be made in your paper, yet it does so in a fast-moving, streamlined way that’s easier for readers—or just yourself!—to follow.

That depends on your college’s requirements, or your professor’s preference. If the outline IS required as part of your final paper, you must be sure that the following occur:
  1. Make each line item as clear as possible.
  1. Have each item be “parallel,” or consistent in format. This can usually be handled simply by starting each item with the same type of word (“part of speech”).
  • For example, in a friendly conversation with someone, would you say: “This morning I spent time cleaning house, talking on the phone, and to walk the dog”?
  • OR would you say: “This morning I spent time cleaning house, talking on the phone, and walking the dog”?

Of course, the second choice above is the correct one. Notice that each of the action words—cleaning, talking, and walking—are all “ing” words. Keeping these items in your list in the same format (in this case, “ing” words) makes your list be correct…or “parallel.”

Sometimes, in college papers, the outline is a required part of the final product. In Master’s Theses, for example, the Table of Contents is usually formatted as an outline. Almost always, it is a topic outline. The same is true of most Doctoral Dissertations.

Where can I See Some Samples of Outlines?

Luckily for all of us, search engines help us find many important things on the internet quickly and easily. Simply google “topic outlines”  or “sentence outlines”…or, better yet, google “topic outline vs. sentence outline” and get the best of both worlds!

There are plenty of explanations of each of these types of outlines and samples of each from a variety of sources. Look them up, and enjoy!



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