Six Steps for Writing & Using a Research Paper Outline
Consult the guidelines, style manual preferences or instructions for authors that are associated with the intended research paper and incorporate the relevant requirements into the outline.
Almost every research paper must observe some sort of structural and stylistic requirements, and it is usually wise to begin an outline by immediately jotting in the necessary headings and subheadings and making reminder notes about length limitations (e.g., ‘10,000 words total length’), referencing style (e.g., ‘Chicago parenthetical author–date citations’), placement of particular elements (e.g., ‘tables and figures should be gathered together and presented after appendices’) and other essential details. Some guidelines are very specific, providing enough detailed information to enable the establishment of a complete skeletal outline on their own. Others are brief and rather vague, rendering this step a potentially short one, although similar papers – papers recently published by a targeted journal, for instance, or sample essays provided by a university instructor – can always be used as models from which to determine an appropriate structure, documentation style and other features. If you have neither instructions nor models to work with, this first step can be skipped.
Reflect on the nature of the current research and add to the outline the sections, subsections, visual elements, supporting documents and other parts that will be necessary to introduce, contextualise, describe, report, interpret and discuss the specific research processes and findings thoroughly.
A research paper’s structure can be designed in this way without any kind of instructions or guidelines, but if guideline preferences have already been applied to the outline, the goal will be to make any small adjustments that the unique nature of the new research may demand. Particularly innovative research cannot always be accommodated within rigid publisher guidelines, in which case a different publishing venue is usually the best solution. If options are not available, however, more creative organisational strategies will be necessary, and communication with the editor may be advisable to ensure that they will be acceptable.
Write notes in the outline under each heading and subheading for the main body of the paper to indicate in a brief or condensed format exactly what the content and purpose of each section and subsection should be.
By the ‘main body’ of the research paper I mean the primary sections of running text that describe and report the research, from the introductory and background material through descriptions of methods, reports of results, final discussions and bibliographical references (for preliminary and final matter, on the other hand, see Step 5 below). In the introductory sections, for instance, key details that readers should know about the topic might be listed along with early versions of any research questions, hypotheses or objectives that will ultimately appear in those early sections. The notes for a literature review could indicate the sources to be considered and perhaps the intended order of discussion. Other sections of the outline could also include notes about the sources to be cited – studies that have used similar methodology for the methods section, for instance, or articles reporting contradictory findings for the results section. Limitations of the research, anticipated interpretations and primary implications could be noted for the discussion section. Generally speaking, anything that seems significant or valuable as a paper is planned is usually worth noting in a precise and thorough outline. Some details may never become part of the final text, of course, but others will prove most useful as the paper is drafted.
Add brief notes in appropriate places in the outline to indicate the preliminary and final matter required for the research paper.
Notes about the necessity and placement of the paper’s title, authors, abstract, keywords, objectives, highlights, acknowledgements, image credits, ethical statements, professional declarations and any other preliminary and final material should be included at this stage. Details that must not be neglected or forgotten, such as the exact wording for acknowledging financial support or the use of copyright images, can also be noted in the outline to increase efficiency and prevent unpleasant consequences. For titles, keywords and other short bits of text such as author names and addresses, working versions will probably be as brief if not briefer than notes about them, and the working versions can simply be altered as necessary until the paper itself is finalised.
Use the outline as a template for drafting the research paper itself.
Since all the headings and subheadings are already in their proper places in the outline and details about what must be written and achieved in each part are there to work with, drafting the separate sections is a matter of expanding those rough notes into complete sentences and fully developed ideas. The writing process will still be challenging, of course, but writing a research paper based on a carefully prepared outline tends to prevent both omissions and digressions from the author’s intentions, enabling the researcher to create a complete first draft that observes all required preferences and requirements and is well worth the time and effort dedicated to the outline.