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How to Write a Research Paper Outline As They Do in Academia

write a research paper outline

Outlining serves several important purposes. Mainly, a good outline provides writing aid. It helps you organize your thoughts in a coherent argument and understand how the ideas within your research are related to each other. Moreover, it also gives you a roadmap for writing, ensuring that nothing important is left out. Usually, you don’t have to hand your outline in – it’s just a sort of private academic writing help.

However, sometimes instructors ask students to submit a college research paper outline beforehand, so they could see how you plan to conduct your study. This way, they can assess your approach, see all the major issues you are going to address, and suggest improvements.

This is beneficial for students. You don’t waste your time making things the wrong way and then redoing the entire paper all over. However, it presents its own difficulties. You will have to learn how to write a formal outline for a research paper adhering to all standards.

Don’t have time to master the art of academic outlining? Why not order an example outline from PaperHelp? After all, modeling is one of the best ways to learn new skills!

How to Write an Outline for a Research Paper Example

Depending on the information already available to you on the topic, you can write a short, very generalized outline, or a highly detailed outline, with all the minor points laid out. However, the rule of thumb is to list the introduction, the body with several major issues, and the conclusion.


At the very minimum, the introduction’s outline should include your working thesis statement, aka, what your paper is attempting to prove. However, you may want to make your outline more detailed. In that case, you can add a current problem you are addressing with your article, focus areas, key terms, and research methods.


In the body, you should outline at least the most important sections:

  • Background information (history of research, the current state of the problem, limitations of the study)
  • Major points (the main arguments propelling your paper forward)
  • Optionally, minor points as subtopics, presenting supporting ideas or evidence


At the preliminary stage, you cannot outline a detailed conclusion based on all your future findings. However, you should be able to revisit your thesis (you presume it will be confirmed). You can also suggest the next steps in research or in practice to curb the problem or define your paper’s place in a broader discussion.

Each of the rubrics in your outline should be represented by a short statement. Those statements are going to be topical sentences of the corresponding paragraphs in the full-fledged research paper.

For example, if you are doing your research on musical education in school, this is how your outline could look like:

Topic: The benefits of musical education in K-12

  • I. Introduction:
    • A. Current problem: Educational attainment rates are declining in the US, while the funding of musical programs is cut by schools.
    • B. Area of focus: K-12 students and adults who used to receive musical instruction in school.
    • C. Key terms: K-12, musical students, non-musical students.

    Thesis statement: Students benefit from musical instruction in school in many ways, starting from better academic performance to improved emotional well-being.

  • II. Background:
    • A. Historical overview of musical education: Music in the past was an integral part of a good education.
    • B. Historical overview of K-12 in the US: K-12 education was enacted as the law of the land in 1965 when large federal funds were granted to each state to sustain local K-12 systems.
    • C. The current state of musical education in the K-12 system: The funding for musical programs has been increasingly scarce.
  • III. Academic benefits of teaching music in the K-12 system:
    • A. Musical performance has been linked to higher academic achievement:
      • a. Learning music helps to understand phonetic patterns and is linked to superior reading skills.
      • b. Music instruction improves memory and attention span.
    • B. Students receiving musical instruction have been found to be more organized.
    • C. Musical training may close the academic gap between students from high- and low-income families.
  • IV. Long-term health benefits of musical education for students:
    • A. Playing a musical instrument improves cognitive health:
      • a. Playing music as a child has been proven to be a significant predictor of higher IQ in adulthood.
      • b. Playing an instrument can prevent dementia.
    • B. Music improves motor task competency.
    • C. Playing a musical instrument improves emotional outlook:
      • a. Music lessons improve anxiety control.
      • b. Music lessons reduce the risk of depression.
  • V. Other benefits of receiving musical education:
    • A. Learning music teaches personal and artistic expression.
    • B. Playing music in a band enhances the feeling of social connection.
    • C. Playing music improves the likelihood of graduation.
  • VI. Conclusion:
    • A. Revisiting thesis: Music education significantly contributes to the emotional, physical, and cognitive health of the students.
    • B. Next steps: Therefore, we suggest increasing the funding of the music programs in K-12.

    If you are using direct quotes or paraphrased statements from sources others than your independent research, you should cite them properly, even in the outline.

How to Write a Research Paper Outline APA Style

The 7th Edition Publication Manual of APA does not give any formal guidelines for formatting outlines. However, if you are asked to submit your outline in APA for your class, the good practice is to use:

  • 1-inch margins on all sides
  • double spacing
  • one of the six accepted fonts: Calibri 11 pt., Arial 11 pt., Lucida Sans Unicode 11pt., Times New Roman 12 pt., Georgia 11 pt., or Computer Modern 10 pt.

Also, APA style usually favors alphanumeric or decimal subheadings system. The example from the previous rubric is an alphanumeric APA style outline. It combines Roman numerals, capitalized letters, Arabic numerals, and lowercase letters – in that order. It also uses varying indentations to organize the flow of information spatially.

The decimal subheading system is similar but only uses Arabic numerals to structure the text. Here is how section III from the above example would look like in the decimal system:

3. Academic benefits of teaching music in the K-12 system:

  • 3.1 Musical performance has been linked to higher academic achievement:
    • 3.1.1 Learning music helps to understand phonetic patterns and is linked to superior reading skills.
    • 3.1.2 Instruction in music improves memory and attention span.
  • 3.2 Students receiving musical instruction have been found to be more organized.
  • 3.3 Musical training may close the academic gap between students from high- and low-income families.

How to Write an Outline for a Research Paper MLA Style

Similar to APA, MLA does not have a specific format for outlines. General recommendations apply:

  • 1-inch margins on all sides
  • double spacing
  • legible font (most commonly used is Times New Roman, 12 pt.)
  • indent the first line of each paragraph using the “Tab” key
  • use alphanumeric, decimal, or whatever subheading formatting system works best for you

However, you must remain consistent and provide a key of your chosen heading formatting along with your outline. Also, for both APA and MLA, there are four essential principles of organizing your outline:

  • Parallelism: sections heading should resemble each other grammatically; use either short phrases or full sentences for the subheadings of the same level.
  • Coordination: subheadings of one level should be of the same significance.
  • Subordination: headings of a higher level should express general points, while subheadings of lower levels should express more specific points.
  • Division: there should be two or more subsections of the same level. For example, if you use A, there at least should be B. You can’t leave lone A-level subheading dangling.

Too complicated? Not a problem for us! If you need help editing the outline for your research paper or writing it from scratch, we can do it in no time!

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