Writing an outline can help you before you start to draft an essay, but it can also help you after you’ve started gathering your ideas. Try out a few different steps and strategies for different assignments to see when writing an outline is most helpful for you.

In this reading, we have a video about outlining from the UNC-Chapel Hill Writing Center and a module about outlines for research papers and for science-based assignments from Excelsior College.

Watch and read through these resources, and find a few strategies you can use while working on your papers.



Outlining (from Excelsior College)

A map with a route outlined with pushpins.

A 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 pages will provide you with some basic examples of outline structures for research papers in several different fields.

Outlining: Traditional

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

  1. Introduction
    1. background, context for topic
    2. transition to thesis
    3. thesis statement
  2. Supporting Point 1
    1. supporting detail
      1. example 1
      2. example 2
    2. supporting detail
      1. example 1
      2. example 2
    3. supporting detail
      1. example 1
      2. example 2
  3. Supporting Point 2
  4. Supporting Point 3
  5. Supporting Point 4
  6. Conclusion
    1. review central ideas presented in body and make connection to thesis
    2. transition to closing thoughts
    3. closing thoughts

Outlining: IMRAD

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 limitations of your research

Outlining: See It in Practice

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

There is also a Video Transcript  at the link

Outlining: Time to Write

Using one of the sample outline formats modeled for you in this section, it’s time for you to draft an outline for your paper.

Remember to use an outline that fits your writing situation. If you are using a traditional outline, you should develop strong topic sentences to guide your outline. If you are using the IMRAD format or an APA format, the headings will guide you. 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 focus for your research 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 [outline with someone to get feedback].