Nov 23, 2021

A Practical Guide to Research Paper Outlines

You sometimes have to submit an essay or a research proposal outline for a research project before you do most of the actual research to show that you have understood the assignment, defined a good research question or hypothesis, and contemplated the structure of your research paper. You can find various templates and examples for such outlines, which usually begin with “put your thesis statement/research question at the top” and then ask you to decide whether to add your supporting ideas/points in “alphanumeric,” “decimal,” or “full-sentence” style. 

That is certainly one useful (if not overly formalized) way of using outlining to prepare drafting an academic text. But here we want to talk about how to make an outline after you have done a research project or thesis work and are not quite sure how to put everything together into a written thesis to hand in or a research paper manuscript to submit to a journal.

What is a research paper outline?

Creating a research project outline entails more than just listing bullet points (although you can use bullet points and lists in your outline). It includes how to organize everything you have done and thought about and want to say about your work into a clear structure you can use as the basis for your research paper. 

There are two different methods of creating an outline: let’s call these “abstract style” and “paper style.” These names reflect how briefly you summarize your work at this initial point, or how extensive and complicated the methods and designs you used and the data you collected are. The type of outline you use also depends on how clear the story you want to tell is and how much organizing and structuring of information you still need to do before you can draft your actual paper. 

An outline acts like a scaffolding, giving structure to your work so you can fill out the details of your research paper more smoothly.

Table of Contents:

  1. Abstract-Style Outline Format
  2. Paper-Style Outline Format
  3. Additional Tips for Outlining a Research Paper in English

Abstract-Style Research Paper Outline Format

A research paper outline in abstract style consists, like the abstract of a research paper, of short answers to the essential questions that anyone trying to understand your work would ask.

  • Why did you decide to do what you did?
  • What exactly did you do?
  • How did you do it?
  • What did you find?
  • What does it mean?
  • What should you/we/someone else do now?

These questions form the structure of not only a typical research paper abstract, but also a typical article manuscript. They will eventually be omitted and replaced by the usual headers, such as Introduction/Background, Aim, Methods, Results, Discussion, Conclusions, etc. Answering these key questions for yourself first (with keywords or short sentences) and then sticking to the same structure and information when drafting your article will ensure that your story is consistent and that there are no logical gaps or contradictions between the different sections of your research paper

If you draft this abstract outline carefully, you can use it as the basis for every other part of your paper. You reduce it even more, down to the absolute essential elements, to create your title; you choose your keywords on the basis of the summary presented here; and you expand it into the introduction, methods, results, and discussion sections of your paper without contradicting yourself or losing the logical thread. 

Research Paper Outline Example (Abstract style)

Let’s say you did a research project on the effect of university online classes on attendance rates and create a simple outline example using these six questions:

  1. Why did you decide to do what you did?

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, many university courses around the world have been moved online, at least temporarily. Since students have been saving time on commuting, I wondered if attendance rates have increased overall.

  1. What exactly did you do?

I compared attendance scores for courses that were taught both before (offline) and during (online) the COVID-19 pandemic at my university.

  1. How did you do it?

I selected five popular subjects (business, law, medicine, psychology, art & design) and one general course per subject; then I contacted the professors in charge and asked them to provide me with anonymized attendance scores.

  1. What did you find?

Attendance did not significantly change for medicine and law, but slightly dropped for the other three subjects. I found no difference between male and female students.  

  1. What does it mean?

Even though students saved time on traveling between their home and the campus during the COVID-19 pandemic, they did not attend classes more consistently; in some subjects, they missed more classes than before.

  1. What should you/we/someone else do now?

Since I do not have any other information about the students, I can only speculate on potential explanations. Next, I will put together a questionnaire to assess how students have been coping with online classes and how the experiences from this time can benefit university teaching and learning in general.

Note that you could have made the same outline using just keywords instead of full sentences. You could also have added more methodological details or the results of your statistical analysis. However, when you can break everything down to the absolute essentials like this, you will have a good foundation upon which to develop a full paper. 

However, maybe your study just seems too complicated. So you look at these questions and then at your notes and data and have no idea how to come up with such simple answers. Or maybe things went in a completely different direction since you started writing your paper, so now you are no longer sure what the main point of your experiments was and what the main conclusion should be. If that is how you feel right now, then outlining your paper in “paper style” might be the right method for you.

Paper-Style Research Paper Outline Format 

The purpose of a paper-style outline is the same as that of an abstract-style outline: You want to organize your initial thoughts and plans, the methods and tools you used, all the experiments you conducted, the data you collected and analyzed, as well as your results, into a clear structure so that you can identify the main storyline for your paper and the main conclusions that you want the reader to take from it. 

First, take as much space as you need and simply jot down everything in your study you planned to do, everything you did, and everything you thought about based on your notes, lab book, and earlier literature you read or used. Such an outline can contain all your initial ideas, the timeline of all your pilots and all your experiments, the reasons for why you changed direction or designed new experiments half-way through your study, all the analyses you ever did, all the feedback and criticism you already got from supervisors and seniors or during conference presentations, and all the ideas you have for future work. If this is your thesis or your first publication, then your first outline might look quite messy – and that is exactly why you need to structure your paper before trying to write everything up. 

So you have finally remembered all you have done in your study and have written everything down. The next step is to realize that you cannot throw all of this at the reader and expect them to put it together. You will have to create a story that is clear and consistent, contains all the essential information (and leaves out any that is not), and leads the reader in the same manner the abstract outline does, from why over what and how to what you found and what it all means

This does not mean you should suppress results that did not come out as intended or try to make your study look smoother. But the reader does not really need to know all the details about why you changed your research question after your initial literature search or some failed pilots. Instead of writing down the simple questions we used for the abstract outline, to organize your still messy notes, write down the main sections of the manuscript you are trying to put together. Additionally, include what kinds of information needs to go where in your paper’s structure.

  1. Introduction Section: 

What field is your research part of?

What other papers did you read before deciding on your topic?

Who is your target audience and how much information do your readers need to understand where you are coming from? 

Can you summarize what you did in two sentences?

Did you have a clear hypothesis? If not, what were the potential outcomes of your work?

  1. Methods Section: 

List all the methods, questionnaires, and tests you used.

Are your methods all standard in the field or do you need to explain them?

List everything chronologically or according to topics, whatever makes more sense. Read more about writing the Methods section if you need help with this important decision.

  1. Results Section: 

Use the same timeline or topics you introduced in the method section.

Make sure you answer all the questions you raised in the introduction.

Use tables, graphs, and other visualizations to guide the reader.

Don’t present results of tests/analyses that you did not mention in the methods.

  1. Discussion/Conclusion Section: 

Summarize quickly what you did and found but don’t repeat your results.

Explain whether your findings were to be expected, are new and surprising, are in line with the existing literature or are contradicting some earlier work. 

Do you think your findings can be generalized? Can they be useful for people in certain professions or other fields?  

Does your study have limitations? What would you do differently next time? 

What future research do you think should be done based on your findings?

  1. Conclusion: 

This is your take-home message for the reader. Make sure that your conclusion is directly related to your initial research question.

Now you can simply reorganize your notes (if you use a computer software) or fill in the different sections and cross out information on your original list. When you have used all your jotted notes, go through your new outline and check what is still missing. Now check once more that your conclusion is related to your initial research question. If that is the case, you are good to go. You can now either break your outline down further and shorten it into an abstract, or you can expand the different outline sections into a full article.

Additional Tips for Outlining a Research Paper in English

If you are a non-native speaker of English, then you might take notes in your mother language or maybe in different languages, read literature in your mother language, and generally not think in English while doing your research. If your goal is to write your thesis or paper in English, however, then our advice is to only use your mother language when listing keywords at the very beginning of the outlining process (if at all). As soon as you write down full sentences that you want to go into your paper eventually, you can save yourself a lot of work, avoid mistakes later in the process, and train your brain (which will help you immensely the next time you write an academic text), if you stick to English.

Another thing to keep in mind is that starting to write in full sentences too early in the process means that you might need to omit some passages, maybe entire paragraphs, when you later decide to change the structure or storyline of your paper. Depending on how much you enjoy (or hate) writing in English and how much effort it costs you, having to throw away a perfectly fine paragraph that you invested a lot of time in can be incredibly frustrating. Our advice is therefore to not spend too much time on writing and to not get too attached to exact wording before you have a solid outline that you then only need to fill in and expand into a full paper.

Once you have finished drafting your paper, consider using a paper editing service to polish up your manuscript and correct any errors in style or formatting. And while you draft your article, make use of Wordvice AI’s free grammar checker, which identifies and fixes errors in punctuation, spelling, and grammar in any academic document.