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.
The 7500-word paper (about 30 pages of double-spaced typescript) is a basic building block of historical scholarship. It is long enough to tell a significant story from beginning to end, yet short enough to be written in one semester and read in one sitting. It may appear as an undergraduate or graduate seminar paper, an article in a scholarly journal, or–likely with some expansion–as a chapter in a dissertation or book.
While such papers are not as uniform in structure as a sonnet or a legal brief, they nonetheless belong to a specific genre and tend to resemble one another in form. Understanding the anatomy of such papers will help you read and write them.
I. Introduction: about 6 paragraphs
Introductions should get the reader sufficiently intrigued to want to read the entire paper. They do this with three elements.
Most scholarly articles these days begin with a short anecdote that explains what was at stake in the story that follows. A lede sentence can establish the time and place, introduce at least one of the people involved, and suggest the problem or tension facing that person. In some cases, the hook will introduce a lead character. In other cases, the person featured in the story represents a larger group but does not herself appear in the article.
B. Research question
Scholarly historians want to do more than report the who, what, where, and when of a story. They seek to explain, to ask why. The introduction should tell the reader what why question the article will answer.
Many articles pose their questions explicitly in their introductions or even their titles. (See, e.g., Amanda Ross Edwards, “Why Sport? The Development of Sport as a Policy Issue in Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.”) This is not a universal requirement, but it is often a good idea.
A thesis statement is an answer to a research question. It is the one essential element every introduction must have. For more on thesis statements, see “A Thesis Statement Template” and “Dialectical Thesis Statements.”
II. Historiography: 3 paragraphs
Though necessary to establish originality, historiography can be a bit tedious to read, especially for readers already familiar with the relevant scholarly debate. Published journal articles often compress the historiography or even confine it to brief footnotes. By contrast, seminar instructors are likely to be quite interested in how your account builds on previous scholarship. Thus, the historiography of a seminar paper may be considerably longer than that of a journal article of equal length. Indeed, the historiography sections of books may offer better models.
The historiography section must achieve three tasks:
A. Explain how other scholars have approached the research question in general.
B. Explain how other scholars have approached (or ignored) the specific research question.
C. Explain how your paper uses new questions or sources to answer the question.
For more on these questions, and examples, see ” How to Write a Prospectus.”
Because the historiography can interrupt the flow from the introduction to the main body of a story, it may be helpful to restate the thesis at the end of the historiography section, with reference to other scholarship.
For instance, Joel Black offers two versions of his argument that lawyer Richard Westbrooks relied on a theory of presumed or implied equality.
Without historiography: “In an era when courts refused to decree Black equality, Westbrooks articulated a spectrum of individual and collective, and of partial and comprehensive, citizenship statuses that derived from the implied equality of local law.”
With historiography: “By proposing an alternative to legal liberal analyses of civil rights, this paper uses ‘Legal Helps’ to examine law away from courts, and carries forward discussions of popular justice by Elizabeth Dale and Donald Nieman to illustrate popular constructions of citizenship, and to highlight the efforts of civil-rights activists to make the constitutional presumption of equality a mechanism of social change.”
Though the arguments are the same, each version does distinct work. The first is easier to read and remember, answering the question, why did Westbrooks write what he did? The second is nearly twice as long (and it comes with a much longer footnote), but it too answers an important question: if the reader is already familiar with the existing scholarship on pre-1954 Civil Rights law, what will he learn from this study?
III. Background section (if needed): 3 paragraphs
Homer started stories in medias res (in the middle of things), but only because his readers were familiar with the general story of the Trojan War. For historians, Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita (From the Founding of the City) is a better model: start at the beginning, summarizing others’ findings as needed to get to the start of the story you will tell with your original research. This background section should be brief, perhaps three paragraphs, since you don’t want to devote too much of your time or your reader’s to someone else’s work.
A good example is found in Ann Ziker’s “Segregationists Confront American Empire.” In about four paragraphs, Ziker tells the story of Hawai’i’s annexation and statehood, from the 1890s through the 1950s, based largely on the work of Roger Bell and other scholars. That provides the necessary background for her own contribution, a study of how white segregationists viewed the congressional debate from afar. Often, the reader can find the end of the background section by seeing secondary sources give way to primary sources in the accompanying citations.
IV. Body: about 45 paragraphs total
The body of your work should constitute about 75 percent of your paper. It provides the the pastrami of your sandwich, to which the rest of the paper contribute only the bread that holds it together and the russian dressing that sets off the flavor of the meat.
I strongly suggest–and in my seminars, require–that you divide the body into smaller sections. These can range in size and number (three sections of fifteen paragraphs each, four of eleven, perhaps five of nine), and need not be uniform in size. But breaking the body down into parts will help you budget your time as you write and help your reader keep track of the flow of your argument and narrative.
Each body section needs its own thesis, one that supports the overall argument. For instance, Peter Baldwin’s “Public Privacy: Restrooms in American Cities, 1869–1932” is composed of smaller essays on related topics: the problems of public urination and early attempts to deal with them, the nicer facilities offered by saloons and other private businesses, the role of health reformers, the construction of public comfort stations and the problems in their implementation.
Baldwin begins each section with a subhead that designates its contents and relates them to the overall argument. This is standard for the Journal of Social History, where Baldwin’s article appears, and many other excellent journals, such as Law and History Review, and Technology and Culture. As The Craft of Research explains, you can “create each heading out of the words that are unique to the section or subsection it heads, [e.g.,] ‘Sam Houston as a Hero in Newspapers Outside of Texas.’ These headings also show the structure of your report at a glance . . . .”
Whereas the background section may cite mostly secondary sources, the body of the work should cite mostly primary sources. Other sections of the paper can show what other scholars have done; this is the chance for you to add new sources to the collective account.
V. Conclusion: 2 paragraphs
Like the introduction, the conclusion presents the research question and the thesis. But it does so to a different reader. The reader of your introduction didn’t know much about your topic, and certainly hadn’t been exposed to the stories and evidence you have so carefully compiled. By the time she gets to you conclusion, she is a changed person, conversant with the events you’ve studied. Remind her what she’s learned, and why it matters.