How To Make An Outline For A Research Paper: Easy Steps For Starters

A research paper outline is the best way to organize your thoughts before you actually start writing. Use the step-by-step guide below to outline without much effort.


  • Determine the size of your outline. If your paper is under ten pages, your outline should fit into a single page. For a 10 to 15 page paper, you may need two or three pages. The maximal length of an outline is four pages. Few papers actually need it to be that long, and they are usually those that are 15 to 20 pages,
  • Check your style requirements. In MLA style, you need to put Roman numerals (I, II, III) before your main categories; while in APA style, it should be Arabic numerals. Custom titles for sections also differ – “References” in APA and “Works Cited” in MLA.
  • Consult your assignment for any specific guidelines. Follow them strictly.
  • Choose between topic and sentence types of outlines. In a topic outline, titles are written in single words or short phrases. This type is preferable when your research paper covers many different issues, e. g. an overview of a large historical period. In a sentence outline, titles are given in complete sentences. This type works better for a research paper focused on a single complex issue. You are usually not allowed to mix different types of titles in a single outline.

Writing an Outline

  • Format your outline page. Insert a page number and running head if necessary.
  • Write down your thesis statement or hypothesis. It will be your primary guideline.
  • Decide on your main categories. They should reflect the main points you are making in your research paper or the main issues you are exploring. If it is historical research, time spans or names of important events may work best as your first-level headings.
  • Write your main categories down.
  • Put appropriate numerals in front of each category.
  • Write your sub-categories. Look at your main categories again. Do any of them seem too broad? Are you going to explore several sub-points under this section? If so, introduce the next outline level (there may be up to four levels in total) and write these sub-points down. Do not forget numerals.
  • Revise your outline. Are your main categories consistent with your thesis statement and with each other? Are there no less than two points under each heading in each level?
  • If you are in doubt about whether your outline fits the requirements, show it to your professor or somebody who you trust. It is better to have to redo your outline than your whole paper.