Research Paper Formal Outline

This is a formal outline for your final research paper. It will present your thesis, the major points in support of that thesis, and the sub-points supporting each major point. It may have additional levels of sub-sub-points if you feel that is necessary.

The basic idea of a formal outline is that different types of letters or numbers (I, A, 1, a, i) represent different levels of the hierarchy of your paper, and sub-levels are indented below main levels. For example:

  1. This is the first main point
    1. This is the first sub-point under I
    2. This is the second sub-point under I
      1. Sub-point B has its own sub-points
      2. But you�d only list them if there were more than one
  2. Here�s the second main point
    1. It has two sub-points
    2. But this one has no sub-sub points

(If you�re using Microsoft Word, you might find yourself getting frustrated by its �helpful� approach to formatting lists. My advice is, don�t sweat the formatting too much. I�d prefer that you follow this or a similar format, but the main thing is that the relations among ideas should be clear. The reader should be able to see at a glance which are the main points, which are the secondary points, which are at the third level of importance, and so on. It should also be obvious which secondaery points belong under which main points. Usually this is accomplished by using different numbering for different levels, and indenting the less important levels. But if you can�t make that work, do whatever you have to so that the relationships are clear.)

Some guidelines for formal outlines are presented in “Developing an Outline” at the Purdue University Online Writing Lab. Please follow those guidelines when writing your outline.

In addition to the elements of a formal outline, please also:

  • Include a thesis statement at the start.
  • Cite your sources: list all authors used in each section in parentheses at the end of that section
  • Attach a list of sources that includes all the sources used for the outline and no others. This list may differ from the one you submitted for the Preliminary Bibliography, if you have added new sources or eliminated old ones.

Topic and Sentence Outlines

There are two major types of outline:

  • Topic Outline
  • Sentence Outline

A topic outline lists words or phrases. A sentence outline lists complete sentences.

A topic outline arranges your ideas hierarchically (showing which are main and which are sub-points), in the sequence you want, and shows what you will talk about. As the name implies, it identifies all the little mini-topics that your paper will comprise, and shows how they relate.

A sentence outline does all of this, plus it shows exactly what you will say about each mini-topic. Each sentence, instead of simply identifying a mini-topic, is like a mini-thesis statement about that mini-topic. It expresses the specific and complete idea that that section of the paper will cover as part of proving the overall thesis.

The method described below will produce a sentence outline.

Your sentence outline should, if done thoroughly and carefully, represent almost a first draft of your research paper. Once you’ve written it, the paper will practically write itself. You’ll just be filling in the blanks, so to speak—providing specific examples and other support to flesh out and prove the ideas you’ve already sketched out. The purpose, in other words, of doing this work is not to make work for you, but to save you work in the long run by breaking the job down into smaller, manageable tasks.

Tip: Outlines can be very detailed or very general, but the more detail you have the farther you’ll get toward writing your paper. Here’s an example. A paper of 12 pages (about 4,500 words) might have four major topics or points, represented by roman numerals (I - IV) in the outline. This would mean each point would represent about three pages of the final paper. These three pages will include background information, multiple sources, different pieces of evidence and explanation supporting that point, and often a brief description of alternative views and an explanation of why those views are not so convincing. Smaller points supporting each of the main points might then take up a single page, or 2 - 3 paragraphs—again with evidence, explanation, alternative views and so on. Finally, even smaller points under these might correspond to individual paragraphs in the final draft.

Writing the Sentence Outline

  1. Write out your thesis at the top of the page.
  2. Make a list of points you must prove to prove your thesis. What would someone have to agree with, in order to agree with the thesis?
    • These will be the main sections of your paper. Like the thesis, these should be complete, declarative sentences—something you can either prove or disprove.
  3. On a new page, write your first main point. This is the thesis for that section of the paper.
  4. Make a list of the points you have to prove to prove that point. Just as with the main points, these should be complete, declarative sentences—statements you can prove or disprove.
  5. These are your sub-points for that section.
  6. Repeat the process for each of your main points.

Once you have the main points and supporting points written down, it’s time to start organizing. First make sure which are main and which are supporting points. For example, you may find that what you thought was a main point is really part of proving another main point. Or, what you first listed under a main point may need its own section. This may change as you continue to work on the outline and draft the paper.

Now you can decide what order you want to present your ideas in. Again, label them with letters or numbers to indicate the sequence.

Tip: Don’t just settle for one organization. Try out at least two different sequences. You’ll be surprised at the connections that emerge, the possibilities that open up, when you rearrange your ideas. You may find that your thesis suddenly snaps into focus, or that points that seemed unrelated in fact belong together, or that what you thought was a main idea is actually a supporting idea for another point. Good writing is all about re-vision, which literally means “seeing again”—seeing your work from a fresh perspective. You can do this at every stage of the writing process, and especially at the organization stage.

Finally, write up the outline in the order you’ve chosen. Remember to include a thesis statement at the start of the outline, and cite and list your sources.

Types of Outlines and Samples

Alphanumeric Outlines

This is the most common type of outline and usually instantly recognizable to most people. The formatting follows these characters, in this order:

  • Roman Numerals
  • Capitalized Letters
  • Arabic Numerals
  • Lowercase Letters

If the outline needs to subdivide beyond these divisions, use Arabic numerals inside parentheses and then lowercase letters inside parentheses. Select the "Sample Outlines" PDF in the Media Box above to download the sample of this outline.

The sample PDF in the Media Box above is an example of an outline that a student might create before writing an essay. In order to organize her thoughts and make sure that she has not forgotten any key points that she wants to address, she creates the outline as a framework for her essay.

What is the assignment?

Your instructor asks the class to write an expository (explanatory) essay on the typical steps a high school student would follow in order to apply to college.

What is the purpose of this essay?

To explain the process for applying to college

Who is the intended audience for this essay?

High school students intending to apply to college and their parents

What is the essay's thesis statement?

When applying to college, a student follows a certain process which includes choosing the right schools and preparing the application materials.

Full Sentence Outlines

The full sentence outline format is essentially the same as the Alphanumeric outline. The main difference (as the title suggests) is that full sentences are required at each level of the outline. This outline is most often used when preparing a traditional essay. Select the "Sample Outlines" PDF in the Media Box above to download the sample of this outline.

Decimal Outlines

The decimal outline is similar in format to the alphanumeric outline. The added benefit is a system of decimal notation that clearly shows how every level of the outline relates to the larger whole. Select the "Sample Outlines" PDF in the Media Box above to download the sample of this outline.

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