How to Write a Research Paper Outline: Simple Tips

So, your professor asks for a research paper outline way before your actual research paper? Or, you simply heard somewhere that a research paper needs an outline, but not sure where to start? No worries — we will tell you all you need to know about writing a research paper outline, and even give you some practical examples of how an outline should look like. But first, let’s try to understand what an outline is and why you need one, in the first place.

Simply put, an outline is a detailed plan for your work. Think of it as a skeleton, if you like. It has to include all the major arguments you are going to make in your research paper, and it should provide supporting evidence for each point you make. Besides, don’t forget that some research papers deal with controversial topics, where an author is supposed to pick a side (like in our outline examples for gun control or marijuana legalization, listed below). In this case, you’ll also be expected to consider an opposing point of view on the matter and provide counter-arguments in your research. This will give any paper an unbiased look, even if you disagree with the opponents and try to prove them wrong.

Of course, before you even sit down to write an outline, you will have to thoroughly research the subject. As you read, we recommend taking notes — this way, you’ll easily organize them into a comprehensive outline. And, of course, these notes will be useful in coming up with a thesis statement for your research — and, as you might already know, a thesis is the main argument you are going to prove in your paper.

As to why you may need a research paper outline (especially if the professor does not specifically ask to submit one), the answer is simple. With a detailed plan at hand, you save precious time on writing. More importantly, it helps you stay on the right track and makes sure the final version of your research is logically structured and polished to perfection.

Tips on drafting a research paper outline

Make sure you understand your topic and your professor’s requirements. Sometimes, an assigned topic may be too broad for the specified paper length, so you might have to narrow the subject down.

A thesis statement should be impartial, but it should still clearly convey your position on the subject — even when dealing with topics that do not seem too controversial.

If your professor has given you detailed instructions, pay attention to every single guideline. Sometimes, a task description contains useful hints on nailing that research paper and getting an A+.

When writing an outline for yourself, don’t bother with formatting — make any notes you’re comfortable with. When writing an outline for your professor, use the same academic format as you need for the final research paper.

Once you have an outline ready, do not rush into writing a paper. Come back to your plan later to make sure it is logical and consistent.

Formatting a research paper outline

Tips below will prove useful if you need to hand your outline in. As already mentioned, it should be formatted in the same style as the paper itself. So, these suggestions should also come in handy for the actual research paper formatting, even if you don’t have to submit an outline beforehand.

Some general formatting tips include:

  • Use the same fonts and spacing all through the paper (Times New Roman 12-point and double spacing is the general standard)
  • Highlight headings and subheadings
  • Use only Arabic numerals
  • Properly reference all of your sources

However, each formatting style will also have specifications of its own and, unfortunately, academic formatting is as important as your paper contents. So, you cannot just hope to write an amazing paper and get an A+ — not unless you’ve taken every formatting detail into account.

While there are many academic formats out there (Turabian, Oxford, Chicago, ASA), we will focus only on the most common two — APA and MLA.

APA Formatting Specifics

This format is the most widespread one when it comes to research papers. Most APA style research papers have a separate title page with student’s name, professor’s name, course, school credentials, and date. The first page does not have a page number but has a running head with your research paper title. Most of the time, a title page is followed by an abstract, which is a brief summary of your work. Only after that, students are supposed to proceed to all of the standard parts: Introduction, Main Body with argumentation, and Conclusion, followed directly by a References page.

MLA Formatting Specifics

MLA is not the most common alternative to APA — at least not when dealing with exact sciences. In humanities and general topics, however, it may be an option. The main difference between APA and MLA style is that the latter does not have a separate title page (unless your professor specifically asks for it). Normally, though, students just type in their name, professor’s name, course, and date in the top left corner of their paper. The next line (centered and Capitalized) is your research paper title. After that, you immediately proceed to the introduction.

Another difference you should note is that references are called “Works Cited” in MLA style. So, to be on the safe side — take the name literally and only include sources you’ve quoted from. As for the rest, the logic of the paper is pretty much the same.

Finally, remember that all academic formats are occasionally updated, so you’ll need to refer to the latest style manuals to make sure every little detail (fonts, page numbers, etc.) is in the right place. Sometimes, your professor may give you a manual, but even if s/he doesn’t, this information will always be available online. Don’t forget to double-check it — you don’t want to lose points on such trifle details as formatting!

Research Paper Outline Examples

Below are some of our examples of how an outline for a research paper may look like. Of course, do not forget that the actual structure and logic will largely depend on the thesis you’re about to prove. So, once again — your thesis comes first.

TOPIC: Family violence

Just like with any other research papers, a compelling thesis statement is a must. In this case, it can go like this: “Family violence is a serious matter that, unfortunately, is not widely broadcasted in the media, which is exactly why news platforms should pay more attention to this issue.” Or, if you want to take a different angle in your research, you can make it sound like this: “Family violence is a common case in developing countries, where poor economic conditions cannot provide a solid educational background for its citizens. Therefore, governments should invest more in education.”

Of course, there can be many other perspectives on the subject, but regardless of your thesis, an outline for this type of research paper will go like this:


  • The definition of family violence
  • Causes of family violence
  • Thesis


  1. Current international situation with family violence
    • Countries where family violence is most common
    • Groups where family violence is most common
  2. Measures that can be taken against family violence
    • Introducing government penalties
    • Educating people about family violence and its causes
    • Measures to investigate each case
    • Measures to protect victims


  • Restating the main issues
  • Rephrasing the thesis

TOPIC: Gun control

This is a highly controversial issue, so you will need to make your position on the subject clear. So, your thesis, as well as your argumentation, will be either pro or anti-gun control. Here is an example of a possible outline that takes an anti-gun approach:


  • History of gun control regulation
  • Current discussion and arguments about gun control
  • Highlighting why choosing a side is important
  • Thesis


  1. Constitutional laws in the US that allow bearing firearms
    • Guns as a means of protection
    • Guns as a means to commit more crimes
  2. Introducing gun control — will it help?
    • Evaluating the owner’s psychological condition
    • Mass shooting in public places
    • Killing in self-defense


  • Restating the main issues
  • Rephrasing the thesis
  • Highlighting that introducing strict gun control laws is essential for modern society

TOPIC: Marijuana legalization

Another controversial subject that cannot be described from a neutral perspective. Similar to gun control, you will have to make your position on this topic clear — and, more importantly, defend your point of view with unbiased scientific evidence. This is an example of a paper that accepts marijuana legalization:


  • History of Marijuana
  • Cannabis use in the modern world
  • Current controversy about legalization
  • Thesis


  1. Marijuana as a medical means for
    • Cancer
    • Depression
    • Chronic pain
  2. Marijuana as a recreational drug
    • Constitutional right to make one’s own choice
    • Relaxing effects that do not make people violent (as opposed to alcohol and other drugs)
    • Higher quality and lower prices if legalized (as opposed to buying illegally)
  3. Marijuana as a gateway drug
    • No proven data of physical addiction
    • No proven data that light drug consumption leads to heavy drug consumption


  • Restating the main arguments
  • Stating that counter-arguments are not convincing
  • Rephrasing the thesis and proving it right

Finally, remember that even the best of outlines is still not the final version of your paper. Of course, if you take time to research the topic and come up with a very detailed plan for your work, you will unlikely need to improvise as you write. On the other hand, a poorly detailed outline may lead to a writing block — just like finding the right words over a blank sheet of paper usually do. On some occasions, you may want to add some changes and modify your completed outline, and it is acceptable — after all, you’re the writer. However, don’t forget that even a minor addition may force you to rewrite the whole outline and restructure the paper, so be careful with that.

Of course, if by now you feel that an outline, let alone the research paper, will take you too much time and energy, we’re here to help. Our professional writing team has completed thousands of compelling, well-researched papers even on short deadlines. And, even though we do hope our guides have proved useful, we are well aware of the difference between theory and practice. So, if the deadline is looming, and you haven’t even started on your research, let our professional team handle this paper for you.

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