Organizing your paper can be a daunting task if you begin too late, so organizing a paper should take place during the reading and note-taking process. As you read and take notes, make sure to group your data into self-contained categories. These categories will help you to build the structure of your paper.
Take, for example, a paper about children's education and the quantity of television children watch. Some categories may be the following:
- Amount of television children watch (by population, age, gender, etc.)
- Behaviors or issues linked to television watching (obesity, ADHD, etc.)
- Outcomes linked to television watching (performance in school, expected income, etc.)
- Factors influencing school performance (parent involvement, study time, etc.)
The list above holds some clear themes that may emerge you as read through the literature. It is sometimes a challenge to know what information to group together into a category. Sources that share similar data, support one another, or bring about similar concerns may be a good place to start looking for such categories.
For example, let's say you had three sources that had the following information:
- The average American youth spends 900 hours in school over the course of a school year; the average American youth watches 1500 hours of television a year (Herr, 2001).
- "According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), kids in the United States watch about 4 hours of TV a day - even though the AAP guidelines say children older than 2 should watch no more than 1 to 2 hours a day of quality programming" (Folder, Crisp, & Watson, 2005, p. 2).
- "According to AAP (2007) guidelines, children under age 2 should have no screen time (TV, DVDs or videotapes, computers, or video games) at all. During the first 2 years, a critical time for brain development, TV can get in the way of exploring, learning, and spending time interacting and playing with parents and others, which helps young children develop the skills they need to grow cognitively, physically, socially, and emotionally" (Folder, Crisp, & Watson, 2005, p. 9).
With these three ideas, you might group them under this category: Amount of television children watch.
Each of these source quotations or paraphrases supports that category. For each group of information, repeat this process to group similar categories together. Then you can move on to order the information you gather.
I. General Approaches
There are two general approaches you can take when writing an outline for your paper:
The topic outline consists of short phrases. This approach is useful when you are dealing with a number of different issues that could be arranged in a variety of different ways in your paper. Due to short phrases having more content than using simple sentences, they create better content from which to build your paper.
The sentence outline is done in full sentences. This approach is useful when your paper focuses on complex issues in detail. The sentence outline is also useful because sentences themselves have many of the details in them needed to build a paper and it allows you to include those details in the sentences instead of having to create an outline of short phrases that goes on page after page.
II. Steps to Making the Outline
A strong outline details each topic and subtopic in your paper, organizing these points so that they build your argument toward an evidence-based conclusion. Writing an outline will also help you focus on the task at hand and avoid unnecessary tangents, logical fallacies, and underdeveloped paragraphs.
- Identify the research problem. The research problem is the focal point from which the rest of the outline flows. Try to sum up the point of your paper in one sentence or phrase. It also can be key to deciding what the title of your paper should be.
- Identify the main categories. What main points will you analyze? The introduction describes all of your main points; the rest of your paper can be spent developing those points.
- Create the first category. What is the first point you want to cover? If the paper centers around a complicated term, a definition can be a good place to start. For a paper about a particular theory, giving the general background on the theory can be a good place to begin.
- Create subcategories. After you have followed these steps, create points under it that provide support for the main point. The number of categories that you use depends on the amount of information that you are trying to cover. There is no right or wrong number to use.
Once you have developed the basic outline of the paper, organize the contents to match the standard format of a research paper as described in this guide.
III. Things to Consider When Writing an Outline
- There is no rule dictating which approach is best. Choose either a topic outline or a sentence outline based on which one you believe will work best for you. However, once you begin developing an outline, it's helpful to stick to only one approach.
- Both topic and sentence outlines use Roman and Arabic numerals along with capital and small letters of the alphabet arranged in a consistent and rigid sequence. A rigid format should be used especially if you are required to hand in your outline.
- Although the format of an outline is rigid, it shouldn't make you inflexible about how to write your paper. Often when you start investigating a research problem [i.e., reviewing the research literature], especially if you are unfamiliar with the topic, you should anticipate the likelihood your analysis could go in different directions. If your paper changes focus, or you need to add new sections, then feel free to reorganize the outline.
- If appropriate, organize the main points of your outline in chronological order. In papers where you need to trace the history or chronology of events or issues, it is important to arrange your outline in the same manner, knowing that it's easier to re-arrange things now than when you've almost finished your paper.
- For a standard research paper of 15-20 pages, your outline should be no more than four pages in length. It may be helpful as you are developing your outline to also write down a tentative list of references.
Four Main Components for Effective Outlines. The Writing Lab and The OWL. Purdue University; How to Make an Outline. Psychology Writing Center. University of Washington; Organization: Informal Outlines. The Reading/Writing Center. Hunter College; Organization: Standard Outline Form. The Reading/Writing Center. Hunter College; Outlining. Department of English Writing Guide. George Mason University; Plotnic, Jerry. Organizing an Essay. University College Writing Centre. University of Toronto; Reverse Outline. The Writing Center. University of North Carolina; Reverse Outlines: A Writer's Technique for Examining Organization. The Writer’s Handbook. Writing Center. University of Wisconsin, Madison; Using Outlines. Writing Tutorial Services, Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning. Indiana University; Writing: Considering Structure and Organization. Institute for Writing Rhetoric. Dartmouth College.