How to Write a Research Paper Outline

How to Write a Research Paper Outline

There is no way to deny that a research paper outline is a great facilitator in the strenuous and formidable task. It's your guiding star that will reduce any risks of getting out of your way.

A research paper is a long-term assignment and it can take several months to complete. It’s natural that you won’t be able to keep all the data about your academic work in your mind, so an outline will be serving as a guideline. Even when you make a one-month break, you will still be in the loop of the direction of your work.

So, as you are wondering, ‘What does an outline look like for a research paper?’ make sure that you’ll find an answer here.

Before Starting Out on an Outline of a Research Paper

Should you get on with outlining the paper structure as soon as you hear about the assignment? No, that’s not the way a research project outline is created.

Confirm the topic first and make sure it falls within the discipline scope. Go with the one that is interesting for you and is relevant for the present time. It should also have some trusted resources you can refer to but still have some room for your own investigation.

When you are done with this, it’s time to collect data and immerse yourself in the subject. In this way, you’ll learn what aspects to focus on in your paper. Make notes that would help you come up with a draft of the outline.

Research paper outline

Academic Paper Outline Types - Two Criteria

So, now you are fully equipped with the findings on the subject matter of your paper. Thus, it’s high time to throw yourself into figuring out how to write a detailed outline for a research paper.

The way you will be structuring your outline will depend on the formatting style, but we’ll detail this aspect a little bit later. First, let us show you in what ways you can organize information about the upcoming work.

Topic vs. Sentence

If you are uncertain how to write a research paper outline and what units to use - a phrase or a sentence, your doubts make sense. In fact, both of them work and the choice will depend on the professor’s preferences. 

So, there are two types of outlines based on the point structure:

  • topic - the outline is made of short headings;
  • sentence - the outline presents full sentences.

Decimal vs. Alphanumeric

You might also find outlines that are formatted in different list styles. The choice of the list format will be guided by the formatting style defined by the professor or the institution. Thus, you should learn how to write an outline for a research paper MLA, APA, or Chicago style.

Basically, there are two ways to format the list:

  • decimal - only decimals are used to identify the points of the outline;
  • alphanumeric - both letters and numbers are used for separating the outline points.

College Research Paper Outline Levels

The whole point of the APA or MLA research paper outlines is that they organize the data in an eye-friendly and structural way. Sometimes it involves breaking down data into different levels.

The first level will contain the most general pieces of information and will make the heading of the outline section. For example,

  1. Introduction
  2. First topic
  3. Second topic
  4. Conclusion


The second level gives more detail on the general subject. There should be at least two topics for the second level. Otherwise, they don’t make sense. Frequently, the second level is enough to reveal the subject to the fullest. For instance,

  1. Introduction
    1. Background
    2. Statement
  2. First topic
    1. Point 1
    2. Point 2
  3. Second topic
    1. Point 1
    2. Point 2
  4. Conclusion
    1. Summary of the core points
    2. The field for future research


The third level details the topic of the second level. It is used to break down formidable topics into smaller sections and add more clarity to the research. Let’s check the example,

  1. First topic
  1. Point 1
    1. Background
    2. Feature 1
    3. Feature 2


You can go as detailed as you want when you are making an outline for yourself. But when it’s a part of your paper, do as your prof says.

How to Create a Research Paper Outline in Various Formatting Styles

Your paper should be formatted in one of the approved academic styles. We’ve gathered recommendations for the most popular ones so you could flawlessly format your outline without any inaccuracies in the defined style.

APA Research Paper Outline Guidelines

If you are performing an assignment on Psychology or any other social science like Education, Sociology, and more, you are more likely to be using the APA formatting style for your work.

When you look through the APA outline example for a research paper, you’ll notice that there are no specific requirements for outline formatting. The final result will mostly depend on the professor’s preferences or your own vision. However, here is what we would recommend you to stick with:

  • use a traditional 12 pt Times New Roman font;
  • set 1-inch margins on all sides;
  • break down the outline into introduction, body, and conclusion;
  • go with Roman numerals for the first level of the outline;
  • pick capital letters for the second level;
  • use Arabic numbers for the third level of the outline.


It might sound confusing, so let us visualize the outline for you so you could have a better understanding of the right formatting:

  1. Introduction
    1. Background
    2. Thesis 
  2. First topic
    1. Point 1
      1. Background
      2. Feature 1
      3. Feature 2
    2. Point 2
  3. Second topic
    1. Point 1
    2. Point 2
  4. Conclusion
    1. Summary of the core points
    2. The field for future research

Recommendations on How to Write an Outline in MLA Format

MLA formatting style doesn’t provide any instructions for the layout of the outline. The only thing specified is that the alphanumeric outline is recommended for a paper in MLA style.

Thus, you can use the recommendations we gave in the previous section for your outline in MLA format. 

Tips for Chicago Style Outline Format

When you are going to craft a research paper on History, Arts, or Literature, you might be requested to format your work in the Chicago style.

The outline that is written in the framework of this style is no different from others. It should have a clear hierarchy with several levels. However, the way you style the points completely relies on your instructor. 

You might use the above-mentioned tips and utilize the Roman numerals for the leadoff level of the outline. Then go with capital letters for detailing the topic and narrow it down with Arabic numbers on the third level.

Still Uncertain How to Style Your Outline?

Even though the outline is not the most critical aspect of your research paper, you still hold the belief that it should be perfectly formatted and structured as well.

We can assist you with anything from identifying the levels of the outline to figuring out how to organize your work. The outline can either lead you in the proper direction or tangle up the issue, causing you to write the paper from a completely different perspective.

If you want to be a success and craft a paper that will leave no space for doubts, opt for our writing an essay outline service and we’ll help you structure your work. We’ll assign the best writer who is an expert in your field to craft the all-embracing outline that would impress you with the depiction of topic-related details.