How to write a research paper outline

The outline is a cornerstone of the critical steps in writing your research paper. It provides a structured way to arrange your content, either hierarchically or logically. 

The time and effort you put into honing this skill will pay off in the long run, not only during your academic writing process but also in various professional fields.

Benefits of effective outlines

Understanding the information flow

Organization of ideas

Research paper outline example

Outline example on Microsoft’s Communication Strategy

  1. Introduction
    1. Definition of Microsoft’s communication strategy Engage readers by starting with a captivating hook.
    2. The company’s significance and global impact.Begin with an interesting fact, question, or anecdote to grab readers’ attention.
    3. Thesis statement: Microsoft’s communication strategy has played a pivotal role in the company’s global impact and expansion. This paper examines the evolution, advantages, challenges, and evaluation of this strategy, showcasing its significance in enhancing efficiency and building trust. Clearly state your main argument in the thesis. This helps guide the direction of your research.

  2. Evolution of Microsoft’s Communication Strategy 1st supporting paragraph
    1. Historical development of Microsoft’s communication practices
    2. Adaptations over time in response to changing technologies and markets

  3. Advantages of the Communication Strategy
    1. Role of research and innovation in crafting the strategy
    2. Focus on customer satisfaction and integration of diverse products
    3. Exemplary internal communication practices fostering efficiency

  4. Challenges and Critiques
    1. Cost-effectiveness of the strategy and allocation of resources
    2. Stakeholder participation and external communication challenges
    3. Addressing criticisms: Exploring doubts and limitations raised by analysts

  5. Impact and Effectiveness
    1. Evaluation of Microsoft’s communication strategy over two decades
    2. Examination of improvements and adaptations made over time


  6. Conclusion
    1. Summary of the various facets of Microsoft’s communication strategy Summarize the key points discussed in each section to provide a comprehensive overview.
    2. Relating findings to the ongoing communication debate Connect your research to the broader discourse on communication strategies and debates
    3. Concluding statement: An informed perspective on the strategy’s efficacy and impact

Types of research paper outlines

There are various formats you can use to organize your research paper outline. Each format has a specific function for structuring your ideas and thoughts. 

Let’s take a look at the three main types of research paper outlines in more detail.

Alphanumeric outline

When creating an alphanumeric outline, you use a combination of letters and numbers to arrange your ideas hierarchically. You can construct a clear hierarchy of topics, subtopics, and supporting details using this format. It is a widely used format due to its efficiency and simplicity.

Alphanumeric structure outline example

  1. Introduction
    1. Hook the reader
    2. Present thesis statement

  2. Background
    1. Give historical context
    2. Relevant research

Full sentence outline

As the name suggests, each point and subpoint are described in full sentences in the full-sentence outline. This format offers a more thorough overview of your research, making it easier to develop each idea in your paper.

Full sentence outline example

Outline sample

  1. Introduction
    1. To engage readers, start with an attention-grabbing hook.
    2. Clearly present the central thesis statement to guide the paper.

  2. Background
    1. Examine the historical context to offer readers a comprehensive understanding.
    2. Incorporate existing research relevant to the subject.

Decimal outline

Decimal outlines organize your ideas in a numerical system. It uses decimals to indicate various degrees of importance. This format effectively divides complicated ideas into smaller, more understandable chunks.

Decimal structure outline example

  1. Introduction
    1. Hook the reader with an intriguing opening.
    2. Clearly state the thesis statement that drives your paper's direction.
  2. Background
    1. Present historical context to establish a foundation.
    2. Integrate existing research to contextualize your study.

Levels of outline organization

You’ll organize your ideas into several levels of organization when writing a research paper outline. Each level breaks down your ideas in a unique way. Let’s explore the various organizational levels.

First level of organization

The introduction, main points, and conclusion of your research paper should all be outlined at the first level of your outline. This level gives a broad overview of the structure of your paper.

First level organization example

  1. Introduction
  2. Main point 1
  3. Main point 2
  4. Main point 3
  5. Conclusion

Second level of organization

You’ll have supporting points that give more specific information within each main point. You can further develop your main arguments using these supporting points.

Second level of organization example

  1. Main point 1
    1. Supporting point A
    2. Supporting point B

Third level of organization

You will provide detailed supporting information for each supporting point. These sub-points provide detailed illustrations, arguments, or explanations to support your claims.

Third level of organization example

  1. Main Point 1
    1. Supporting detail A
        1. Example 1
        2. Example 2

Fourth level of organization

At this level, you give specifics that support your sub-points, such as quotes, statistics, or references. These specifics strengthen the validity and depth of your research.

Alphanumeric structure outline example

  1. Main Point 1
    1. Supporting detail A
        1. Example 1
                a. Quote from a source
                a. Statistical data

Pro tips for effective outlining

By adhering to these tips, you’ll create a research paper outline that serves as a roadmap for your academic writing. A well-organized outline ensures logical flow and consistency in the final work, resulting in a strong and insightful research paper.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why is an outline important for writing a research paper?

An outline serves as a road map, assisting you in arranging your thoughts and developing a well-organized structure for your paper. By creating an outline, you can make sure your paper flows logically and avoid missing any crucial information.

How do I choose the right type of outline format?

Consider the complexity of your research and your own preferences. Decimal outlines are excellent for breaking down complex ideas, full-sentence ideas offer more detail, and alphanumeric outlines are concise.

What’s the purpose of hierarchical levels in an outline?

Hierarchical levels organize your content from general to specific. This structure makes the connections between concepts clear, improving the coherence and reader-friendliness of your paper.

Picture of Deniz Akcaoglu
Deniz Akcaoglu
Content editor and writer. Probably out there trying to get into an obscure band she actually hates the sound of.