Part 2: Situation and Analysis

9 Outlines


A map with push pins along a routeA strong outline is like a road map for your research paper. Outlining can help you maintain a clear focus in your research essay because an outline helps you see your whole paper in a condensed form, which can help you create a good plan for how you’ll organize your research and develop your ideas.

Just as there are different types of essays, there are different outline structures appropriate to different fields and different types of essay assignments. You’ll want to consult with your instructor about any specific organizational requirements, but the following will provide you with some basic examples of outline structures for research papers in several different fields. Pre-draft and Post Draft outlines.


Pre-Draft Outlines

Traditional Outlining

In many of your courses, you’ll be asked to write a traditional, thesis-based research essay. In this structure, you provide a thesis, usually at the end of your introduction, body paragraphs that support your thesis with research, and a conclusion to emphasize the key points of your research paper. You’ll likely encounter this type of assignment in classes in the humanities, but you may also be asked to write a traditional research paper in business classes and some introductory courses in the sciences and social sciences.

In the sample on this page, you’ll see a basic structure that can be modified to fit the length of your assignment. It’s important to note, in shorter research essays, each point of your outline might correspond to a single paragraph, but in longer research papers, you might develop each supporting point over several paragraphs.


Traditional Outline

example of an outline

Traditional Outline Example

Outline of student paper showing Roman numeral formatting, followed by A, B, C categorization, for the topic of digital technology


IMRAD Outlining

In many of your courses in the sciences and social sciences, such as sociology, psychology, and biology, you may be required to write a research paper using the IMRAD format. IMRAD stands for Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion. In this format, you present your research and discuss your methods for gathering research. Each section of the IMRAD structure can take several paragraphs to develop.

This structure is also sometimes referred to as the APA format, but be sure not to confuse this with the APA format for documentation of your research.


IMRAD Outline

  1. Introduction
    1. provide research question
    2. explain the significance
    3. review of background or known information on your topic
  2. Methods
    1. describe your methods for gathering information
    2. explain your sources of information, both primary and secondary
  3. Results
    1. describe what you found out from your research.
    2. develop each point thoroughly, as this is the main section of your research paper
  4. Discussion
    1. explain the significance of your findings
    2. describe how they support your thesis
    3. discuss the limitations of your research

NOTE: APA does not recommend or require any particular outline for your papers. If you’ve seen sample papers following APA format, you may have seen the IMRAD format used, but this is not an official APA requirement. Your assignment should always dictate outline structure, not a formatting style.

So you might have an assignment that requires APA format for the documentation but a very different organizational pattern. In fact, you may use the traditional outline for some projects written in APA format.

See It in Practice

In this videocast, you’ll see how our student writer has organized all of her research into a traditional outline.


Writing an Effective Outline

This checklist can help you write an effective outline for your assignment. It will also help you discover where you may need to do additional reading or prewriting.

  • Do I have a controlling idea that guides the development of the entire piece of writing?
  • Do I have three or more main points that I want to make in this piece of writing? Does each main point connect to my controlling idea?
  • Is my outline in the best order—chronological order, spatial order, or order of importance—for me to present my main points? Will this order help me get my main point across?
  • Do I have supporting details that will help me inform, explain, or prove my main points?
  • Do I need to add more support? If so, where?
  • Do I need to make any adjustments to my working thesis statement before I consider it the final version?

Key Takeaways

  • Writers must put their ideas in order so the assignment makes sense. The most common orders are chronological order, spatial order, and order of importance.
  • After gathering and evaluating the information you found for your essay, the next step is to write a working, or preliminary, thesis statement.
  • The working thesis statement expresses the main idea that you want to develop in the entire piece of writing. It can be modified as you continue the writing process.
  • Effective writers prepare a formal outline to organize their main ideas and supporting details in the order they will be presented.
  • A topic outline uses words and phrases to express ideas.
  • A sentence outline uses complete sentences to express ideas.
  • The writer’s thesis statement begins the outline and the outline ends with suggestions for the concluding paragraph.


Outline Time?

When it is time for you to write your outline, if you are unsure about the structural requirements for your assignment, be sure to ask your professor.

In your outline, you should aim for a level of detail at least similar to what you see in the models, though more detail may be necessary, depending upon the length of your paper. A clear outline gives you a good plan for your paper and will help you determine whether you have a strong research focus before you begin drafting the paper.

It’s always a good idea to get feedback on your outline before heading into the drafting and integrating stage of your writing process. Share either a formal or informal




Post Draft Outline

A big huzzah–the rough drafts are done, which is a major hurdle.  I know there’s still a lot to do, but I think the hardest part’s out of the way.

Now, it’s time to turn away from the raw content creation of writing a draft and towards the fine-tuning, that transforms into polishing and shaping an effective essay.

Like a pre-draft outline, a post-draft outline is a useful tool for assessing the organization of your paper. After you’re done with a rough draft, creating a post-draft outline can help you see how your paper flows from beginning to end.






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