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#1 Start with the Thesis
Any work you do on your research paper outline needs to start with your thesis. Now, your thesis is going to evolve and get refined as you complete your research and writing, but you need to start with your thesis so you know where you are going. The thesis is your argument – not like the one you had with your sister last week, but rather, what are you trying to convince your reader? How are you going to convince them? Another post in this series will cover how to refine your thesis and make it shine, but for now, come up with the answers to these questions. Then, break down the steps of how you will convince your reader into categories.
For example, for a paper I wrote last year about the religious causes of the American Civil War, my thesis towards the beginning of the project was “The Second Great Awakening was a major driving force behind the American Civil War, especially as it contributed to religious sectarian division between North and South, increased public participation of African Americans in organized religion, and the growth of the abolition movement over the anti-slavery movement.”
– the religious sectarian division between North and South
– increased public participation of African Americans in organized religion
– growth of the abolition movement over the anti-slavery movement
#2 Map out your Research Paper
When I plan a research paper outline, I find it easiest to use a mind map type brainstorm, although you could probably use your favorite brainstorming technique. Start with a circle in the middle with the basis of your thesis: “Second Great Awakening was a major cause of the American Civil War.” Then, branch out from there with your categories. I usually add a category for background information, which won’t be listed out in my thesis but will come right after the introduction. How much background information will depend on the length of your paper and the type of paper. A history paper might have more background information, for example. Sometimes your professor will give you guidelines in this area.
Then, add subcategories for each of those categories. Each category will become a section of my paper, and each subcategory will be its own paragraph. How many categories you have will depend mostly on how you can group the topics in your paper together, but how many subcategories you have will depend on the length of the paper. A good guide is roughly 2 paragraphs per page. Sometimes a subcategory might need two paragraphs, but I recommend planning out your paper as if each subcategory will only be one paragraph. You may end up with too much material and have to trim some out later, but that is easier than having to go do more research later just to meet your page count.
Finally, I branch out from each subcategory with quick notes about a few sources I might use for that subcategory.
#3 Create the Research Paper Outline Structure
Next, on my mind map I number each of the categories based on the order I think I want to put them in. I do the same thing with the subcategories within each category. Don’t spend too much time on this step, because you can (and probably will!) change it later.
Now it is time to actually create the research paper outline. Open up a Word document, create your header information (name, course, etc.) and a tentative title for your paper. Don’t worry too much about the title either; it will probably change as you write the paper. Now, write out your research paper outline using the structure below and the information from your mind map.
#4 Add the Evidence
Now, start pulling together the evidence you will use to argue (convince your reader) of your thesis, and add a few quotes under each subcategory. When you do this, include the full quote even if you think you will paraphrase it in the paper. That way, when you go to write the paper itself, if you decide to use the actual quote instead of a paraphrase, you have it right there and don’t have to go find it again. Also, you want to include your citation information just as you would in the actual paper. So create the citation as a footnote or parenthetical citation depending on which format is required for your class. This is going to save you time later. Study smarter, right?
As you pull together all the supporting information for your argument, there is a good chance that some of your categories or subcategories will change, or that you will change the order you want to share them. That’s good! When you think you have everything pulled together, feel free to move around sections or rename them as you go.
#5 End with the Thesis
When you have all the evidence pulled together and you think you have everything the way you want it, go back to your thesis. Make sure that your research paper outline is arguing your thesis. Your argument may have changed as you wrote the outline. If so, that’s fine, but you just need to revise your thesis now that you have done all the research and prepared everything.
At this point, you have a research paper outline! What that means is that your paper is basically written, in bullet point form. When it comes time to writing the paper itself, all you will need to do is fill it in by turning those outlined points and quotes into cohesive paragraphs. If you do the research paper outline well, you will have done the bulk of the work and the next step will be so much easier!
Okay, time to get started! Go ahead and start working on your outline! Want some feedback? Comment below and let us know what research paper you’re working on, and what you think your thesis and some of your categories might be!