Unit 4: Fundamentals of Academic Essay Writing
22 Creating a Rough Outline
- What is a rough outline? What information does a rough outline include?
- What is the purpose of writing a rough outline? How might it be helpful for you?
You have been reading and taking notes, developing a broad understanding of the topic. You should have some sense of how to answer your research question. As you read, identify the “answers” (evidence) to your research question. Create a rough outline to organize your ideas.
A rough outline (RO) is a tentative plan of what your essay will look like. It includes:
- Your research question (RQ).
- The focus of your research question.
- The answer to your RQ, expressed as a short list of categories.
Technique for creating a rough outline: Brainstorming a list
- Review your notes and articles.
- Write your research question at the top of your paper.
- Brainstorm a list of words or phrases that answer your research question.
- Review your list and see which words seem to go together. Label groups of words with a different number for each “category” you notice. (In the example below there are four categories, so each answer has been labeled 1, 2, 3, or 4.)
- Put your rough outline away and look at it later with “fresh eyes.” Is there anything you would like to change or add?
Note: You will continue to refine this rough outline. It will help you write your thesis statement and your detailed outline, and it is likely to change as you explore your topic.
Example Rough Outline
1. Research question
Focus type(s) – choose one or more.
2. Do an in-depth, focused reading of your sources. Look for evidence which answers your research question. Make a list of 10-15 phrases which answer the RQ.
3. Categorize: Analyze the list and group similar ideas together into categories . Put numbers next to each item designating its category. Then identify a word or phrase to describe each category. List the categories as 3-4 supporting points in a rough outline:
4. Write a tentative thesis statement. Limit your supporting points to the three most important.
Academic Writing I by UW-Madison ESL Program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.
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How to Write a Rough Outline
Why Is There a Need to Develop a Rough Outline?
- It can help you to organize your thoughts. A rough outline can actually help you in terms of outlining the details that you are mentally developing to be written in an actual manner. With this, you can specifically know the steps that you need to follow throughout the writing process.
- It can help you to give focus on your topic. If you already have a rough outline, it will be easier for you to present your topic in the best way possible. More so, it can give you an idea on how you can create the entirety of the document so you can give highlight on specific and important information.
- It can help you incorporate supporting details in a more precise and effective manner. If your evidences or references are specified appropriately, then your written document can be more credible.
- It can help you easily edit details so you can strengthen your stand. With a draft to guide you within the entire writing activity, it will be easier for you to know how you can revise write-ups that have become irrelevant or unnecessary within the development of your discussion.
Step-by-Step Process of Rough Outline Writing
- Browse through free outline samples so you can have an idea on how this document can be formatted.
- Always start by brainstorming. Be specific with how you would like to present the ideas that you have in mind through the help of the rough outline.
- Have an initial visualization of the entire flow of the call to actions that you need to achieve when writing.
- Do not forget to research about the topic that you will write about first so you can easily come up of a discussion flow based on facts.
- Develop a plot that you can follow when developing the actual rough outline that you will use.
- Ensure that you will come up with a discussion flow which is commonly focused on the introduction, body and conclusion of the write-up.
- Once you already have the categories of the write-up and the information that you would like to discuss, then start making the rough outline.
- Incorporate a thesis statement as well as a list of information resources within the rough outline. This will allow you to narrow down the details that you would like to discuss in your write-up.
- Make it a habit to review the entire rough outline whenever you plan to do one. Doing this can help you revise your content faster when necessary.
Guidelines When Creating a Rough Outline
- Though outline samples should be complete, it does not necessary mean that you need to list down all the minute details of your discussion. As a guide, a rough outline only helps you to remember the things that you need to give focus on.
- Ensure that you will be specific and direct to the point when it comes to specifying the details that you will tackle in your draft.
- Give focus on the detail flow or the continuation of the information that you would like to discuss.
- Do not take a lot of time perfecting the grammar and other information technicalities in the rough outline. Again, a rough outline is both a draft and a guide, and you have a lot of editing time when you are already in the process of writing the actual article.
Up for the Challenge of Making Your Own Rough Outline?
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12.1 Creating a Rough Draft for a Research Paper
- Apply strategies for drafting an effective introduction and conclusion.
- Identify when and how to summarize, paraphrase, and directly quote information from research sources.
- Apply guidelines for citing sources within the body of the paper and the bibliography.
- Use primary and secondary research to support ideas.
- Identify the purposes for which writers use each type of research.
At last, you are ready to begin writing the rough draft of your research paper. Putting your thinking and research into words is exciting. It can also be challenging. In this section, you will learn strategies for handling the more challenging aspects of writing a research paper, such as integrating material from your sources, citing information correctly, and avoiding any misuse of your sources.
The Structure of a Research Paper
Research papers generally follow the same basic structure: an introduction that presents the writer’s thesis, a body section that develops the thesis with supporting points and evidence, and a conclusion that revisits the thesis and provides additional insights or suggestions for further research.
Your writing voice will come across most strongly in your introduction and conclusion, as you work to attract your readers’ interest and establish your thesis. These sections usually do not cite sources at length. They focus on the big picture, not specific details. In contrast, the body of your paper will cite sources extensively. As you present your ideas, you will support your points with details from your research.
Writing Your Introduction
There are several approaches to writing an introduction, each of which fulfills the same goals. The introduction should get readers’ attention, provide background information, and present the writer’s thesis. Many writers like to begin with one of the following catchy openers:
- A surprising fact
- A thought-provoking question
- An attention-getting quote
- A brief anecdote that illustrates a larger concept
- A connection between your topic and your readers’ experiences
The next few sentences place the opening in context by presenting background information. From there, the writer builds toward a thesis, which is traditionally placed at the end of the introduction. Think of your thesis as a signpost that lets readers know in what direction the paper is headed.
Jorge decided to begin his research paper by connecting his topic to readers’ daily experiences. Read the first draft of his introduction. The thesis is underlined. Note how Jorge progresses from the opening sentences to background information to his thesis.
Beyond the Hype: Evaluating Low-Carb Diets
Over the past decade, increasing numbers of Americans have jumped on the low-carb bandwagon. Some studies estimate that approximately 40 million Americans, or about 20 percent of the population, are attempting to restrict their intake of food high in carbohydrates (Sanders and Katz, 2004; Hirsch, 2004). Proponents of low-carb diets say they are not only the most effective way to lose weight, but they also yield health benefits such as lower blood pressure and improved cholesterol levels. Meanwhile, some doctors claim that low-carb diets are overrated and caution that their long-term effects are unknown. Although following a low-carbohydrate diet can benefit some people, these diets are not necessarily the best option for everyone who wants to lose weight or improve their health.
Write the introductory paragraph of your research paper. Try using one of the techniques listed in this section to write an engaging introduction. Be sure to include background information about the topic that leads to your thesis.
Writers often work out of sequence when writing a research paper. If you find yourself struggling to write an engaging introduction, you may wish to write the body of your paper first. Writing the body sections first will help you clarify your main points. Writing the introduction should then be easier. You may have a better sense of how to introduce the paper after you have drafted some or all of the body.
Writing Your Conclusion
In your introduction, you tell readers where they are headed. In your conclusion, you recap where they have been. For this reason, some writers prefer to write their conclusions soon after they have written their introduction. However, this method may not work for all writers. Other writers prefer to write their conclusion at the end of the paper, after writing the body paragraphs. No process is absolutely right or absolutely wrong; find the one that best suits you.
No matter when you compose the conclusion, it should sum up your main ideas and revisit your thesis. The conclusion should not simply echo the introduction or rely on bland summary statements, such as “In this paper, I have demonstrated that.…” In fact, avoid repeating your thesis verbatim from the introduction. Restate it in different words that reflect the new perspective gained through your research. That helps keep your ideas fresh for your readers. An effective writer might conclude a paper by asking a new question the research inspired, revisiting an anecdote presented earlier, or reminding readers of how the topic relates to their lives.
Writing at Work
If your job involves writing or reading scientific papers, it helps to understand how professional researchers use the structure described in this section. A scientific paper begins with an abstract that briefly summarizes the entire paper. The introduction explains the purpose of the research, briefly summarizes previous research, and presents the researchers’ hypothesis. The body provides details about the study, such as who participated in it, what the researchers measured, and what results they recorded. The conclusion presents the researchers’ interpretation of the data, or what they learned.
Using Source Material in Your Paper
One of the challenges of writing a research paper is successfully integrating your ideas with material from your sources. Your paper must explain what you think, or it will read like a disconnected string of facts and quotations. However, you also need to support your ideas with research, or they will seem insubstantial. How do you strike the right balance?
You have already taken a step in the right direction by writing your introduction. The introduction and conclusion function like the frame around a picture. They define and limit your topic and place your research in context.
In the body paragraphs of your paper, you will need to integrate ideas carefully at the paragraph level and at the sentence level. You will use topic sentences in your paragraphs to make sure readers understand the significance of any facts, details, or quotations you cite. You will also include sentences that transition between ideas from your research, either within a paragraph or between paragraphs. At the sentence level, you will need to think carefully about how you introduce paraphrased and quoted material.
Earlier you learned about summarizing, paraphrasing, and quoting when taking notes. In the next few sections, you will learn how to use these techniques in the body of your paper to weave in source material to support your ideas.
When you summarize material from a source, you zero in on the main points and restate them concisely in your own words. This technique is appropriate when only the major ideas are relevant to your paper or when you need to simplify complex information into a few key points for your readers.
Be sure to review the source material as you summarize it. Identify the main idea and restate it as concisely as you can—preferably in one sentence. Depending on your purpose, you may also add another sentence or two condensing any important details or examples. Check your summary to make sure it is accurate and complete.
In his draft, Jorge summarized research materials that presented scientists’ findings about low-carbohydrate diets. Read the following passage from a trade magazine article and Jorge’s summary of the article.
Assessing the Efficacy of Low-Carbohydrate Diets
Adrienne Howell, Ph.D.
Over the past few years, a number of clinical studies have explored whether high-protein, low-carbohydrate diets are more effective for weight loss than other frequently recommended diet plans, such as diets that drastically curtail fat intake (Pritikin) or that emphasize consuming lean meats, grains, vegetables, and a moderate amount of unsaturated fats (the Mediterranean diet). A 2009 study found that obese teenagers who followed a low-carbohydrate diet lost an average of 15.6 kilograms over a six-month period, whereas teenagers following a low-fat diet or a Mediterranean diet lost an average of 11.1 kilograms and 9.3 kilograms respectively. Two 2010 studies that measured weight loss for obese adults following these same three diet plans found similar results. Over three months, subjects on the low-carbohydrate diet plan lost anywhere from four to six kilograms more than subjects who followed other diet plans.
In three recent studies, researchers compared outcomes for obese subjects who followed either a low-carbohydrate diet, a low-fat diet, or a Mediterranean diet and found that subjects following a low-carbohydrate diet lost more weight in the same time (Howell, 2010).
A summary restates ideas in your own words—but for specialized or clinical terms, you may need to use terms that appear in the original source. For instance, Jorge used the term obese in his summary because related words such as heavy or overweight have a different clinical meaning.
On a separate sheet of paper, practice summarizing by writing a one-sentence summary of the same passage that Jorge already summarized.
When you paraphrase material from a source, restate the information from an entire sentence or passage in your own words, using your own original sentence structure. A paraphrased source differs from a summarized source in that you focus on restating the ideas, not condensing them.
Again, it is important to check your paraphrase against the source material to make sure it is both accurate and original. Inexperienced writers sometimes use the thesaurus method of paraphrasing—that is, they simply rewrite the source material, replacing most of the words with synonyms. This constitutes a misuse of sources. A true paraphrase restates ideas using the writer’s own language and style.
In his draft, Jorge frequently paraphrased details from sources. At times, he needed to rewrite a sentence more than once to ensure he was paraphrasing ideas correctly. Read the passage from a website. Then read Jorge’s initial attempt at paraphrasing it, followed by the final version of his paraphrase.
Dieters nearly always get great results soon after they begin following a low-carbohydrate diet, but these results tend to taper off after the first few months, particularly because many dieters find it difficult to follow a low-carbohydrate diet plan consistently.
People usually see encouraging outcomes shortly after they go on a low-carbohydrate diet, but their progress slows down after a short while, especially because most discover that it is a challenge to adhere to the diet strictly (Heinz, 2009).
After reviewing the paraphrased sentence, Jorge realized he was following the original source too closely. He did not want to quote the full passage verbatim, so he again attempted to restate the idea in his own style.
Because it is hard for dieters to stick to a low-carbohydrate eating plan, the initial success of these diets is short-lived (Heinz, 2009).
On a separate sheet of paper, follow these steps to practice paraphrasing.
- Choose an important idea or detail from your notes.
- Without looking at the original source, restate the idea in your own words.
- Check your paraphrase against the original text in the source. Make sure both your language and your sentence structure are original.
- Revise your paraphrase if necessary.
Quoting Sources Directly
Most of the time, you will summarize or paraphrase source material instead of quoting directly. Doing so shows that you understand your research well enough to write about it confidently in your own words. However, direct quotes can be powerful when used sparingly and with purpose.
Quoting directly can sometimes help you make a point in a colorful way. If an author’s words are especially vivid, memorable, or well phrased, quoting them may help hold your reader’s interest. Direct quotations from an interviewee or an eyewitness may help you personalize an issue for readers. And when you analyze primary sources, such as a historical speech or a work of literature, quoting extensively is often necessary to illustrate your points. These are valid reasons to use quotations.
Less experienced writers, however, sometimes overuse direct quotations in a research paper because it seems easier than paraphrasing. At best, this reduces the effectiveness of the quotations. At worst, it results in a paper that seems haphazardly pasted together from outside sources. Use quotations sparingly for greater impact.
When you do choose to quote directly from a source, follow these guidelines:
- Make sure you have transcribed the original statement accurately.
- Represent the author’s ideas honestly. Quote enough of the original text to reflect the author’s point accurately.
- Never use a stand-alone quotation. Always integrate the quoted material into your own sentence.
- Use ellipses (…) if you need to omit a word or phrase. Use brackets [ ] if you need to replace a word or phrase.
- Make sure any omissions or changed words do not alter the meaning of the original text. Omit or replace words only when absolutely necessary to shorten the text or to make it grammatically correct within your sentence.
- Remember to include correctly formatted citations that follow the assigned style guide.
Jorge interviewed a dietician as part of his research, and he decided to quote her words in his paper. Read an excerpt from the interview and Jorge’s use of it, which follows.
Personally, I don’t really buy into all of the hype about low-carbohydrate miracle diets like Atkins and so on. Sure, for some people, they are great, but for most, any sensible eating and exercise plan would work just as well.
Registered dietician Dana Kwon (2010) admits, “Personally, I don’t really buy into all of the hype.…Sure, for some people, [low-carbohydrate diets] are great, but for most, any sensible eating and exercise plan would work just as well.”
Notice how Jorge smoothly integrated the quoted material by starting the sentence with an introductory phrase. His use of ellipses and brackets did not change the source’s meaning.
Documenting Source Material
Throughout the writing process, be scrupulous about documenting information taken from sources. The purpose of doing so is twofold:
- To give credit to other writers or researchers for their ideas
- To allow your reader to follow up and learn more about the topic if desired
You will cite sources within the body of your paper and at the end of the paper in your bibliography. For this assignment, you will use the citation format used by the American Psychological Association (also known as APA style). For information on the format used by the Modern Language Association (MLA style), see Chapter 13 “APA and MLA Documentation and Formatting” .
Citing Sources in the Body of Your Paper
In-text citations document your sources within the body of your paper. These include two vital pieces of information: the author’s name and the year the source material was published. When quoting a print source, also include in the citation the page number where the quoted material originally appears. The page number will follow the year in the in-text citation. Page numbers are necessary only when content has been directly quoted, not when it has been summarized or paraphrased.
Within a paragraph, this information may appear as part of your introduction to the material or as a parenthetical citation at the end of a sentence. Read the examples that follow. For more information about in-text citations for other source types, see Chapter 13 “APA and MLA Documentation and Formatting” .
Leibowitz (2008) found that low-carbohydrate diets often helped subjects with Type II diabetes maintain a healthy weight and control blood-sugar levels.
The introduction to the source material includes the author’s name followed by the year of publication in parentheses.
Low-carbohydrate diets often help subjects with Type II diabetes maintain a healthy weight and control blood-sugar levels (Leibowitz, 2008).
The parenthetical citation at the end of the sentence includes the author’s name, a comma, and the year the source was published. The period at the end of the sentence comes after the parentheses.
Creating a List of References
Each of the sources you cite in the body text will appear in a references list at the end of your paper. While in-text citations provide the most basic information about the source, your references section will include additional publication details. In general, you will include the following information:
- The author’s last name followed by his or her first (and sometimes middle) initial
- The year the source was published
- The source title
- For articles in periodicals, the full name of the periodical, along with the volume and issue number and the pages where the article appeared
Additional information may be included for different types of sources, such as online sources. For a detailed guide to APA or MLA citations, see Chapter 13 “APA and MLA Documentation and Formatting” . A sample reference list is provided with the final draft of Jorge’s paper later in this chapter.
Using Primary and Secondary Research
As you write your draft, be mindful of how you are using primary and secondary source material to support your points. Recall that primary sources present firsthand information. Secondary sources are one step removed from primary sources. They present a writer’s analysis or interpretation of primary source materials. How you balance primary and secondary source material in your paper will depend on the topic and assignment.
Using Primary Sources Effectively
Some types of research papers must use primary sources extensively to achieve their purpose. Any paper that analyzes a primary text or presents the writer’s own experimental research falls in this category. Here are a few examples:
- A paper for a literature course analyzing several poems by Emily Dickinson
- A paper for a political science course comparing televised speeches delivered by two presidential candidates
- A paper for a communications course discussing gender biases in television commercials
- A paper for a business administration course that discusses the results of a survey the writer conducted with local businesses to gather information about their work-from-home and flextime policies
- A paper for an elementary education course that discusses the results of an experiment the writer conducted to compare the effectiveness of two different methods of mathematics instruction
For these types of papers, primary research is the main focus. If you are writing about a work (including nonprint works, such as a movie or a painting), it is crucial to gather information and ideas from the original work, rather than relying solely on others’ interpretations. And, of course, if you take the time to design and conduct your own field research, such as a survey, a series of interviews, or an experiment, you will want to discuss it in detail. For example, the interviews may provide interesting responses that you want to share with your reader.
Using Secondary Sources Effectively
For some assignments, it makes sense to rely more on secondary sources than primary sources. If you are not analyzing a text or conducting your own field research, you will need to use secondary sources extensively.
As much as possible, use secondary sources that are closely linked to primary research, such as a journal article presenting the results of the authors’ scientific study or a book that cites interviews and case studies. These sources are more reliable and add more value to your paper than sources that are further removed from primary research. For instance, a popular magazine article on junk-food addiction might be several steps removed from the original scientific study on which it is loosely based. As a result, the article may distort, sensationalize, or misinterpret the scientists’ findings.
Even if your paper is largely based on primary sources, you may use secondary sources to develop your ideas. For instance, an analysis of Alfred Hitchcock’s films would focus on the films themselves as a primary source, but might also cite commentary from critics. A paper that presents an original experiment would include some discussion of similar prior research in the field.
Jorge knew he did not have the time, resources, or experience needed to conduct original experimental research for his paper. Because he was relying on secondary sources to support his ideas, he made a point of citing sources that were not far removed from primary research.
Some sources could be considered primary or secondary sources, depending on the writer’s purpose for using them. For instance, if a writer’s purpose is to inform readers about how the No Child Left Behind legislation has affected elementary education, a Time magazine article on the subject would be a secondary source. However, suppose the writer’s purpose is to analyze how the news media has portrayed the effects of the No Child Left Behind legislation. In that case, articles about the legislation in news magazines like Time , Newsweek , and US News & World Report would be primary sources. They provide firsthand examples of the media coverage the writer is analyzing.
Your research paper presents your thinking about a topic, supported and developed by other people’s ideas and information. It is crucial to always distinguish between the two—as you conduct research, as you plan your paper, and as you write. Failure to do so can lead to plagiarism.
Intentional and Accidental Plagiarism
Plagiarism is the act of misrepresenting someone else’s work as your own. Sometimes a writer plagiarizes work on purpose—for instance, by purchasing an essay from a website and submitting it as original course work. In other cases, a writer may commit accidental plagiarism due to carelessness, haste, or misunderstanding. To avoid unintentional plagiarism, follow these guidelines:
- Understand what types of information must be cited.
- Understand what constitutes fair use of a source.
- Keep source materials and notes carefully organized.
- Follow guidelines for summarizing, paraphrasing, and quoting sources.
When to Cite
Any idea or fact taken from an outside source must be cited, in both the body of your paper and the references list. The only exceptions are facts or general statements that are common knowledge. Common-knowledge facts or general statements are commonly supported by and found in multiple sources. For example, a writer would not need to cite the statement that most breads, pastas, and cereals are high in carbohydrates; this is well known and well documented. However, if a writer explained in detail the differences among the chemical structures of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, a citation would be necessary. When in doubt, cite.
In recent years, issues related to the fair use of sources have been prevalent in popular culture. Recording artists, for example, may disagree about the extent to which one has the right to sample another’s music. For academic purposes, however, the guidelines for fair use are reasonably straightforward.
Writers may quote from or paraphrase material from previously published works without formally obtaining the copyright holder’s permission. Fair use means that the writer legitimately uses brief excerpts from source material to support and develop his or her own ideas. For instance, a columnist may excerpt a few sentences from a novel when writing a book review. However, quoting or paraphrasing another’s work at excessive length, to the extent that large sections of the writing are unoriginal, is not fair use.
As he worked on his draft, Jorge was careful to cite his sources correctly and not to rely excessively on any one source. Occasionally, however, he caught himself quoting a source at great length. In those instances, he highlighted the paragraph in question so that he could go back to it later and revise. Read the example, along with Jorge’s revision.
Heinz (2009) found that “subjects in the low-carbohydrate group (30% carbohydrates; 40% protein, 30% fat) had a mean weight loss of 10 kg (22 lbs) over a 4-month period.” These results were “noticeably better than results for subjects on a low-fat diet (45% carbohydrates, 35% protein, 20% fat)” whose average weight loss was only “7 kg (15.4 lbs) in the same period.” From this, it can be concluded that “low-carbohydrate diets obtain more rapid results.” Other researchers agree that “at least in the short term, patients following low-carbohydrate diets enjoy greater success” than those who follow alternative plans (Johnson & Crowe, 2010).
After reviewing the paragraph, Jorge realized that he had drifted into unoriginal writing. Most of the paragraph was taken verbatim from a single article. Although Jorge had enclosed the material in quotation marks, he knew it was not an appropriate way to use the research in his paper.
Low-carbohydrate diets may indeed be superior to other diet plans for short-term weight loss. In a study comparing low-carbohydrate diets and low-fat diets, Heinz (2009) found that subjects who followed a low-carbohydrate plan (30% of total calories) for 4 months lost, on average, about 3 kilograms more than subjects who followed a low-fat diet for the same time. Heinz concluded that these plans yield quick results, an idea supported by a similar study conducted by Johnson and Crowe (2010). What remains to be seen, however, is whether this initial success can be sustained for longer periods.
As Jorge revised the paragraph, he realized he did not need to quote these sources directly. Instead, he paraphrased their most important findings. He also made sure to include a topic sentence stating the main idea of the paragraph and a concluding sentence that transitioned to the next major topic in his essay.
Working with Sources Carefully
Disorganization and carelessness sometimes lead to plagiarism. For instance, a writer may be unable to provide a complete, accurate citation if he didn’t record bibliographical information. A writer may cut and paste a passage from a website into her paper and later forget where the material came from. A writer who procrastinates may rush through a draft, which easily leads to sloppy paraphrasing and inaccurate quotations. Any of these actions can create the appearance of plagiarism and lead to negative consequences.
Carefully organizing your time and notes is the best guard against these forms of plagiarism. Maintain a detailed working bibliography and thorough notes throughout the research process. Check original sources again to clear up any uncertainties. Allow plenty of time for writing your draft so there is no temptation to cut corners.
Citing other people’s work appropriately is just as important in the workplace as it is in school. If you need to consult outside sources to research a document you are creating, follow the general guidelines already discussed, as well as any industry-specific citation guidelines. For more extensive use of others’ work—for instance, requesting permission to link to another company’s website on your own corporate website—always follow your employer’s established procedures.
The concepts and strategies discussed in this section of Chapter 12 “Writing a Research Paper” connect to a larger issue—academic integrity. You maintain your integrity as a member of an academic community by representing your work and others’ work honestly and by using other people’s work only in legitimately accepted ways. It is a point of honor taken seriously in every academic discipline and career field.
Academic integrity violations have serious educational and professional consequences. Even when cheating and plagiarism go undetected, they still result in a student’s failure to learn necessary research and writing skills. Students who are found guilty of academic integrity violations face consequences ranging from a failing grade to expulsion from the university. Employees may be fired for plagiarism and do irreparable damage to their professional reputation. In short, it is never worth the risk.
- An effective research paper focuses on the writer’s ideas. The introduction and conclusion present and revisit the writer’s thesis. The body of the paper develops the thesis and related points with information from research.
- Ideas and information taken from outside sources must be cited in the body of the paper and in the references section.
- Material taken from sources should be used to develop the writer’s ideas. Summarizing and paraphrasing are usually most effective for this purpose.
- A summary concisely restates the main ideas of a source in the writer’s own words.
- A paraphrase restates ideas from a source using the writer’s own words and sentence structures.
- Direct quotations should be used sparingly. Ellipses and brackets must be used to indicate words that were omitted or changed for conciseness or grammatical correctness.
- Always represent material from outside sources accurately.
- Plagiarism has serious academic and professional consequences. To avoid accidental plagiarism, keep research materials organized, understand guidelines for fair use and appropriate citation of sources, and review the paper to make sure these guidelines are followed.
Writing for Success by University of Minnesota is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.
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How to Create a Structured Research Paper Outline | Example
Published on August 7, 2022 by Courtney Gahan . Revised on November 29, 2022.
A research paper outline is a useful tool to aid in the writing process , providing a structure to follow with all information to be included in the paper clearly organized.
A quality outline can make writing your research paper more efficient by helping to:
- Organize your thoughts
- Understand the flow of information and how ideas are related
- Ensure nothing is forgotten
A research paper outline can also give your teacher an early idea of the final product.
Table of contents
Research paper outline example, how to write a research paper outline, formatting your research paper outline, language in research paper outlines.
- Definition of measles
- Rise in cases in recent years in places the disease was previously eliminated or had very low rates of infection
- Figures: Number of cases per year on average, number in recent years. Relate to immunization
- Symptoms and timeframes of disease
- Risk of fatality, including statistics
- How measles is spread
- Immunization procedures in different regions
- Different regions, focusing on the arguments from those against immunization
- Immunization figures in affected regions
- High number of cases in non-immunizing regions
- Illnesses that can result from measles virus
- Fatal cases of other illnesses after patient contracted measles
- Summary of arguments of different groups
- Summary of figures and relationship with recent immunization debate
- Which side of the argument appears to be correct?
Follow these steps to start your research paper outline:
- Decide on the subject of the paper
- Write down all the ideas you want to include or discuss
- Organize related ideas into sub-groups
- Arrange your ideas into a hierarchy: What should the reader learn first? What is most important? Which idea will help end your paper most effectively?
- Create headings and subheadings that are effective
- Format the outline in either alphanumeric, full-sentence or decimal format
What can proofreading do for your paper?
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There are three different kinds of research paper outline: alphanumeric, full-sentence and decimal outlines. The differences relate to formatting and style of writing.
An alphanumeric outline is most commonly used. It uses Roman numerals, capitalized letters, arabic numerals, lowercase letters to organize the flow of information. Text is written with short notes rather than full sentences.
- Sub-point of sub-point 1
Essentially the same as the alphanumeric outline, but with the text written in full sentences rather than short points.
- Additional sub-point to conclude discussion of point of evidence introduced in point A
A decimal outline is similar in format to the alphanumeric outline, but with a different numbering system: 1, 1.1, 1.2, etc. Text is written as short notes rather than full sentences.
- 1.1.1 Sub-point of first point
- 1.1.2 Sub-point of first point
- 1.2 Second point
To write an effective research paper outline, it is important to pay attention to language. This is especially important if it is one you will show to your teacher or be assessed on.
There are four main considerations: parallelism, coordination, subordination and division.
Parallelism: Be consistent with grammatical form
Parallel structure or parallelism is the repetition of a particular grammatical form within a sentence, or in this case, between points and sub-points. This simply means that if the first point is a verb , the sub-point should also be a verb.
Example of parallelism:
- Include different regions, focusing on the different arguments from those against immunization
Coordination: Be aware of each point’s weight
Your chosen subheadings should hold the same significance as each other, as should all first sub-points, secondary sub-points, and so on.
Example of coordination:
- Include immunization figures in affected regions
- Illnesses that can result from the measles virus
Subordination: Work from general to specific
Subordination refers to the separation of general points from specific. Your main headings should be quite general, and each level of sub-point should become more specific.
Example of subordination:
Division: break information into sub-points.
Your headings should be divided into two or more subsections. There is no limit to how many subsections you can include under each heading, but keep in mind that the information will be structured into a paragraph during the writing stage, so you should not go overboard with the number of sub-points.
Ready to start writing or looking for guidance on a different step in the process? Read our step-by-step guide on how to write a research paper .
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What is a rough draft?
A rough draft is a version of your paper that is complete but not polished . It's a good idea to write an outline before starting your rough draft, to help organize your ideas and arguments.
Here are the steps you can take to write your rough draft :
- Choose a topic
- Identify the issues related to your topic
- Locate books, articles, and reports that give you background information and more
- Create and state your thesis
- Organize your thoughts and notes
- Make an outline
- Find more information , this time find content that supports your points
- Write your introduction
- Write the body of the paper
- Write the conclusion of the paper
The purpose of a rough draft is to allow you to write your paper in the form described above and then edit it or revise it, based on feedback from a tutor or the Online Writing Lab. Getting feedback on your draft allows you to create a better paper and to become a stronger writer.
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How to Write a Research Paper
- Step 1. Choose a Topic
- Step 2. Start Brainstorming
- Step 3. Start Your (Initial) Research
- Step 4. Narrow Your Topic
- Step 5. Research, Research, Research!
- Step 6. Write an Outline
- Step 7. Citations & References
- Step 8. Annotated Bibliography (optional?)
- Step 9. Write a Rough Draft
- Step 10. Edit
- Step 11. Rewrite (Repeatable)
- Step 12. Final Draft
- Additional Sites
- Citing Sources [opens a new window]
Need assistance? Get in touch!
Email: [email protected]
Write a Rough Draft
Many students hear "rough draft" and they think "final draft." Let me assure you, this is not a good idea. A rough draft is you putting ideas to paper in a semi-logical order that might actually get a D.
A rough draft gives you the opportunity to screw up and fix it before you hand in a paper that sucks. Take that opportunity. The fact that your paper sucks at this point is a good thing. It puts less pressure on you, and you can just let ideas flow. Use it to make your paper better. This means yes, you will actually have to write a rough draft .
But instead of being upset about it, use it as a springboard to a better paper. The rough draft could show you where some holes exist in your research. Just because you're writing a rough draft doesn't mean you're done researching !
- << Previous: Step 8. Annotated Bibliography (optional?)
- Next: Step 10. Edit >>
- Last Updated: Aug 22, 2022 11:15 AM
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How to Write a Research Paper Outline In 7 Steps
A research paper outline is a supporting document that lists all the topics to include in a paper in the intended order, usually divided by paragraphs. The typical outline of a research paper also consists of other details like subtopics and evidential sources to help the writer stay organized. Some even have individual sentence topics and early ideas for phrasing.
Want to know how to write a research paper outline? This guide explains step by step what to include and how to write one yourself, including research paper outline examples.
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What is a research paper outline?
The outline is an integral part of how to write a research paper . The main purpose of a research paper outline is to structure the topics, data, and all other inclusions in the paper (like direct quotes) so you stay organized and don’t forget anything.
Conventionally, writers compose outlines after choosing a thesis statement and sourcing research evidence, but before writing the first draft . Making structural changes is far more efficient in the outlining phase than after you write the first draft; you can remove certain topics early on without wasting time writing them and add new topics before the drafting phase so you can write everything all at once.
The typical outline of a research paper is broken up into sections and paragraphs , listing each paragraph’s topic and the related evidence or data to include therein. The depth of detail can change depending on your writing style or the requirements of the paper, as we explain below.
Are there different kinds of research paper outlines?
In short, you decide what details to include in your research paper outline, although the requirements of the assignment influence what’s necessary. For example, a basic college research paper outline for a one-page assignment might contain only a list of four or five paragraph topics, whereas a formal research paper for a scientific study might outline each sentence in all five parts of a research paper: introduction, review of literature, methods, results, and discussion.
Research paper outlines can be one level, two level, and so on, depending on their intricacy. One-level outlines display just the section headings or main topics, while four-level outlines get very detailed with paragraph and sentence breakdowns.
There are three popular formats for research paper outlines: alphanumeric , full sentence , and decimal . Below, we’ll explain the details of each and illustrate their differences with the research paper outline examples, focused on the same topic: “Michael Jordan vs. LeBron James: Who’s the Best Basketball Player?”
Alphanumeric research paper outline
Alphanumeric is the most common outline format—with main topics listed as Roman numerals, subtopics as capital letters, specific points for each subtopic as Arabic numerals, and further details for individual points as lowercase letters.
You would write the information in quick blurbs—just a few words—instead of complete sentences.
Alphanumeric research paper outline example
I. Michael Jordan
A. Career Highlights
1. Six NBA Championships
a. Six NBA Finals MVP
2. US Olympics Basketball Team
a. 1984 Gold Medalist
b. 1992 Gold Medalist
3. Fourteen NBA All-Star Game selections
a. Three NBA All-Star Game MVP Awards
1. Record-holder scoring average
a. Regular season (30.12 points per game)
b. Playoffs (33.45 points per game)
2. Other accolades
a. 1996 Space Jam
b. Owner of Charlotte Hornets
II. LeBron James
1. Four NBA Championships
a. Four NBA Finals MVP
a. 2008 Gold Medalist
b. 2012 Gold Medalist
3. Eighteen NBA All-Star Game selections
a. LeBron James Family Foundation
b. Social activism
a. 2021 Space Jam
b. First player to accumulate $1 billion as an active player
III. Analysis and Discussion
A. Of course, Michael Jordan is better
Full-sentence research paper outline
Full-sentence research paper outlines have the same organization as alphanumeric outlines—with main topics listed as Roman numerals, subtopics as capital letters, subtopic points as Arabic numerals, and details for each point as lowercase letters.
However, the significant difference is that you would write the information in incomplete sentences instead of quick blurbs. The advantage is that your outline is more specific and easier to share with colleagues when working as a team. The disadvantage is that it takes a little longer to write.
Full-sentence research paper outline example
I. Michael Jordan is often considered the greatest basketball player of all time.
A. Jordan’s career in basketball is full of accomplishments and accolades.
1. During his career, Jordan won six NBA Championships.
a. Jordan was named NBA Finals MVP all six times he was eligible.
2. Jordan twice played for the US Olympics Basketball Team.
a. Jordan’s first Olympics was in 1984 when he won the gold medal.
b. Jordan won a second gold medal as part of the 1992 “Dream Team.”
3. Jordan was selected to play in the NBA All-Star Game fourteen times.
a. Jordan won the NBA All-Star Game MVP Award three times.
B. Jordan’s legacy encompasses achievements on and off the court.
1. Jordan still holds a couple of significant records in the NBA.
a. Jordan holds the record for the highest average of points per game during the regular season (30.12 points per game).
b. Jordan also holds the record for the highest average of points per game in the playoffs (33.45 points per game).
2. Jordan has notable success even when not playing basketball.
a. Jordan starred in the original 1996 film Space Jam.
b. Today, Jordan owns the Charlotte Hornets.
II. LeBron James is often considered Jordan’s strongest rival for the greatest basketball player.
A. James’s career mimics, and in some cases surpasses, that of Jordan’s career.
1. During his career, James won four NBA Championships.
a. James was named NBA Finals MVP all four times he was eligible.
2. Like Jordan, James twice played for the US Olympics Basketball Team.
a. James won the 2008 gold medal as part of the US basketball team.
b. James won the gold medal again in 2012.
3. James was selected to play in the NBA All-Star Game eighteen times.
a. James won the NBA All-Star Game MVP Award three times.
B. James has a rich life outside of basketball as well.
1. More than Jordan, James is known for his philanthropic work.
a. James started the LeBron James Family Foundation charity.
b. James fearlessly took public stances on controversial social issues.
2. Aside from charity, James has a few other distinctions from his lifetime.
a. James starred in the 2021 Space Jam remake.
b. James is the first NBA player to accumulate $1 billion as a player.
III. Considering the highlights of both athletes’ careers, who is better?
A. Of course, Michael Jordan is better.
Decimal research paper outline
Decimal research paper outlines forgo the alphanumeric system and instead use a system of numbers with increasing decimal points—with main topics listed as whole numbers (1 or 1.0), subtopics with one decimal point (1.1), points under a subtopic with two decimal points (1.1.1), and further details with three decimal points (18.104.22.168).
Each new piece of information uses the subsequent number (1.1.1, 1.1.2, etc.), so you always know where you are in the outline. You would write the content for each line in quick blurbs, just like the original alphanumeric formal.
Decimal research paper outlines are the most thorough but can get complicated. They’re recommended for writers who prefer technical precision or for lengthy outlines with many topics and subtopics.
Decimal research paper outline example
1 Michael Jordan
1.1 Career Highlights
1.1.1. Six NBA Championships
1.1.2 US Olympics Basketball Team
1.1.3 Fourteen NBA All-Star Game selections
1.2.1 Record-holder scoring average
1.2.2 Other accolades
2 LeBron James
2.1 Career Highlights
2.1.1 Four NBA Championships
2.1.2 US Olympics Basketball Team
2.1.3 Eighteen NBA All-Star Game selection
2.2.2 Other accolades
3 Analysis and Discussion
3.1 Of course, Michael Jordan is better
7 steps to follow when outlining a research paper
1 choose your thesis and gather sources.
Your outline is not the first step in writing a research paper. Before that, you first need to choose a thesis and then gather primary and secondary sources to back it up.
Your thesis is essentially what the research paper is about. Your thesis is given to you in some assignments, but sometimes, as with independent research, you’ll have to develop one on your own.
Once you’ve settled on a thesis, you’ll need evidence to support it. Collect all the relevant sources and data early on so that you know what to write about. Researching often reveals new aspects of your topic that you hadn’t known about before. It may dispel any misinterpretations you have—better to find out you’re wrong sooner rather than later. For help on how to cite your sources, use our free Citation Generator .
Keep in mind that the outline is just one part of writing a research paper. If you want to read more advice, take a look at our full guide on how to write a research paper .
2 Make a list of all the topics, subtopics, and points you want to cover
Go through your research and note each topic, subtopic, and supporting point. Be sure to keep related information together. Remember that everything you discuss in your paper should relate to your thesis, so omit anything that seems tangential.
If you’ve highlighted any specific passages or quotes from your sources, feel free to include them too. They aren’t necessary for all research paper outlines, but they save you time when you’re in the middle of writing your first draft.
3 Choose the best type of research paper outline for the assignment
Choose the type of research paper outline that best matches your topic, the assignment’s length, and the complexity of your paper. Simple papers only require simple outlines, but more advanced topics with lots of research can benefit from more detailed outlines.
Consider whether you’re sharing your outline with other team members or whether you’re writing it solo. Likewise, consider the length and amount of topics. The decimal format can help organize long papers, but feel free to stick with alphanumeric if it makes you comfortable.
4 Consider the structure and sequence of your topics
Before actually writing the research paper outline, think long and hard about the order in which you present your topics. What is the most logical sequence? What structure would communicate most clearly to your readers, who may be unfamiliar with these topics?
Keep in mind that some topics only make sense if they come after other topics. Before presenting new findings or revelations, you may want to add background or contextual information first. All other factors being equal, a chronological sequence is often the most logical structure.
5 Create the framework for your outline
Rather than writing your research paper outline entirely at once, start with just the framework. Try putting the main topics in order without yet including any subtopics or supporting points.
Starting with the framework gives you a clear look at the backbone of your research paper. Now would be a good time to rearrange the order if there’s a problem or add a new topic if you find something is missing. It’s never too late to go back and conduct more research to flesh out the areas you feel are lacking.
6 Add in more details
After you’re satisfied with the framework, go ahead and add the details. Most research paper outlines benefit from including the paragraph structure , so feel free to add lines about your topic sentence, development/support sentences, and conclusion for each paragraph.
If you want to get meticulous, you can add a few notes about sentence structure . Be careful of getting too detailed, though—otherwise, you’re writing a first draft instead of an outline!
7 Revise to improve structure
Finally, check your completed outline to see if there’s room for improvement. This is your last chance before you begin the first draft.
Double-check that all your topics are presented in the optimal order for your reader. Also, look over your research notes again to see if you’ve forgotten anything. Once your outline is the way you want it, it’s time to begin writing your research paper.
Research paper outline FAQs
What is a research paper outline.
A research paper outline is a supporting document that defines the structure of a research paper. The author creates the outline before the first draft to stay on track when writing .
How is a research paper outline structured?
Research paper outlines are generally divided into sections, paragraphs, and individual sentences or points. The amount of detail in a research paper outline varies depending on the writer’s style, the assignment requirements, and the complexity of the topic.
What are the different formats of research paper outlines?
Three popular formats for research paper outlines are alphanumeric , full sentence , and decimal .
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Outlining your first draft by listing each paragraph's topic sentence can be an easy way to ensure that each of your paragraphs is serving a specific purpose in your paper. You may find opportunities to combine or eliminate potential paragraphs when outlining—first drafts often contain repetitive ideas or sections that stall, rather than advance, the paper's central argument .
Additionally, if you are having trouble revising a paper, making an outline of each paragraph and its topic sentence after you have written your paper can be an effective way of identifying a paper's strengths and weaknesses.
The following outline is for a 5-7 page paper discussing the link between educational attainment and health. Review the other sections of this page for more detailed information about each component of this outline!
A. Current Problem: Educational attainment rates are decreasing in the United States while healthcare costs are increasing. B. Population/Area of Focus: Unskilled or low-skilled adult workers C. Key Terms: healthy, well-educated Thesis Statement: Because of their income deficit (cite sources) and general susceptibility to depression (cite sources), students who drop out of high school before graduation maintain a higher risk for physical and mental health problems later in life.
A. Historical Employment Overview: Unskilled laborers in the past were frequently unionized and adequately compensated for their work (cite sources). B. Historical Healthcare Overview: Unskilled laborers in the past were often provided adequate healthcare and benefits (cite sources). C. Current Link between Education and Employment Type: Increasingly, uneducated workers work in unskilled or low-skilled jobs (cite sources). D. Gaps in the Research: Little information exists exploring the health implications of the current conditions in low-skilled jobs.
III. Major Point 1: Conditions of employment affect workers' physical health.
A. Minor Point 1: Unskilled work environments are correlated highly with worker injury (cite sources). B. Minor Point 2: Unskilled work environments rarely provide healthcare or adequate injury recovery time (cite sources).
IV. Major Point 2: Conditions of employment affect workers' mental health
A. Minor Point 1: Employment in a low-skilled position is highly correlated with dangerous levels of stress (cite sources). B. Minor Point 2: Stress is highly correlated with mental health issues (cite sources).
V. Major Point 3: Physical health and mental health correlate directly with one another.
A. Minor Point 1: Mental health problems and physical health problems are highly correlated (cite sources). B. Minor Point 2: Stress manifests itself in physical form (cite sources)
VI. Major Point 4: People with more financial worries have more stress and worse physical health.
A. Minor Point 1: Many high-school dropouts face financial problems (cite sources). B. Minor Point 2: Financial problems are often correlated with unhealthy lifestyle choices such unhealthy food choices, overconsumption/abuse of alcohol, chain smoking, abusive relationships, etc. (cite sources).
A. Restatement of Thesis: Students who drop out of high school are at a higher risk for both mental and physical health problems throughout their lives. B. Next Steps: Society needs educational advocates; educators need to be aware of this situation and strive for student retention in order to promote healthy lifestyles and warn students of the risks associated with dropping out of school.
Your introduction provides context to your readers to prepare them for your paper's argument or purpose. An introduction should begin with discussion of your specific topic (not a broad background overview) and provide just enough context (definitions of key terms, for example) to prepare your readers for your thesis or purpose statement.
Sample Introduction/Context: If the topic of your paper is the link between educational attainment and health, your introduction might do the following: (a) establish the population you are discussing, (b) define key terms such as healthy and well-educated , or (c) justify the discussion of this topic by pointing out a connection to a current problem that your paper will help address.
A thesis or purpose statement should come at the end of your introduction and state clearly and concisely what the purpose or central argument of your paper is. The introduction prepares your reader for this statement, and the rest of the paper follows in support of it.
Sample Thesis Statement: Because of their income deficit (Smith, 2010) and general susceptibility to depression (Jones, 2011), students who drop out of high school before graduation maintain a higher risk for physical and mental health problems later in life.
After the initial introduction, background on your topic often follows. This paragraph or section might include a literature review surveying the current state of knowledge on your topic or simply a historical overview of relevant information. The purpose of this section is to justify your own project or paper by pointing out a gap in the current research which your work will address.
Sample Background: A background section on a paper on education and health might include an overview of recent research in this area, such as research on depression or on decreasing high school graduation rates.
Major points are the building blocks of your paper. Major points build on each other, moving the paper forward and toward its conclusion. Each major point should be a clear claim that relates to the central argument of your paper.
Sample Major Point: Employment and physical health may be a good first major point for this sample paper. Here, a student might discuss how dropping out of high school often leads to fewer employment opportunities, and those employment opportunities that are available tend to be correlated with poor work environments and low pay.
Minor points are subtopics within your major points. Minor points develop the nuances of your major points but may not be significant enough to warrant extended attention on their own. These may come in the form of statistics, examples from your sources, or supporting ideas.
Sample Minor Point: A sample minor point of the previous major point (employment and physical health) might address worker injury or the frequent lack of health insurance benefits offered by low-paying employers.
The rest of the body of your paper will be made up of more major and minor points. Each major point should advance the paper's central argument, often building on the previous points, until you have provided enough evidence and analysis to justify your paper's conclusion.
More Major and Minor Points: In this paper, more major points might include mental health of high school dropouts, healthcare access for dropouts, and correlation between mental and physical health. Minor topics could include specific work environments, job satisfaction in various fields, and correlation between depression and chronic illness.
Your conclusion both restates your paper's major claim and ties that claim into a larger discussion. Rather than simply reiterating each major and minor point, quickly revisit your thesis statement and focus on ending the paper by tying your thesis into current research in your field, next steps for other researchers, your broader studies, or other future implications.
Sample Conclusion: For this paper, a conclusion might restate the central argument (the link between lack of education and health issues) and go on to connect that discussion to a larger discussion of the U.S. healthcare or education systems.
Note that this video was created while APA 6 was the style guide edition in use. There may be some examples of writing that have not been updated to APA 7 guidelines.
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Review your notes and articles. · Write your research question at the top of your paper. · Brainstorm a list of words or phrases that answer your research
A rough outline or a rough draft is used to list down all the necessary information needed to create a document in an organized manner. Rough outlines are
Identify the main idea and restate it as concisely as you can—preferably in one sentence. Depending on your purpose, you may also add another sentence or two
Research: Outline to Rough Draft. 7.3K views 4 years ago ... How to Write the First Draft of Your Research Paper v2.0. Sam Chiang.
A research paper outline makes writing your paper more efficient. It organizes your thoughts and helps shape the flow of information.
A rough draft is a version of your paper that is complete but not polished. It's a good idea to write an outline before starting your rough
A rough draft gives you the opportunity to screw up and fix it before you hand in a paper that sucks. Take that opportunity.
The following outline shows a basic format for most academic papers. No matter what length the paper needs to be, it should still follow the format of
Learn how to structure and create a research paper outline from beginning to end, with examples of different styles to choose from.
Gaps in the Research: Little information exists exploring the health implications of the current conditions in low-skilled jobs. III. Major Point 1: Conditions