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Your first step when writing a research paper is the outline. It helps you arrange your thoughts and keeps ideas coherent. Whether the paper is meant to be a lengthy discussion or a short presentation, an outline is a useful guide for the writer. There is no single, correct way to write an outline. The best outline is one you’re comfortable creating and is appropriate for the assignment.

Here are some types of outlines for research papers:

Informal Outline

Starting with an informal outline will help you concentrate and list your thoughts. You’ll discover which points you’d like to emphasize, the details you lack, and how you’d like the paper to look. The informal outline consists mainly of words or phrases, with only bullets or numbers as a format. This kind of outline is especially handy when you’re pressed for time and need to draft something quickly.

Formal Outline

When writing a more formal or longer paper, or when you have more time to prepare the work, constructing a formal outline is a good idea. You can begin with an informal outline and transform it later With a formal outline, a specific format must be followed. Roman numerals, letters and numbers are used to organize the ideas. The phrase or sentence structure of the main points and supporting points must be the same.

Both formal and informal outlines can be further expanded to form topic or sentence outlines:

Topic Outline

In a topic outline, your ideas and explanations are sorted and distributed into different parts. Each part focuses on a certain topic (written in phrase form), and enumerates the details below. The usual format for topic outlines is Roman numerals for the main points, capital letters for the topics under each main point, and numbers for those under the sub-topics.

Sentence Outline

The sentence outline presents (in sentence form) the proofs supporting your thesis statement. The summary of the entire research paper is embodied in the sentences of this outline. The main points are labelled with Roman numerals, the supporting points for each labelled with capital letters, and details for each supporting point labelled with numbers.

Reverse Outline

While formal and informal outlines are created before the actual writing of the paper, the reverse outline is developed when you’re done with an initial draft. It can be used to check:

  1. If the draft accomplishes its purpose
  2. If all key elements are present
  3. If the order of ideas makes sense

To create a reverse outline, determine the main idea of each of your paragraphs. When combined, they should form the summary of your thesis statement.

Following an outline helps you keep ideas clear and that you don’t neglect any important information. There can be instances when you need to make changes or add to your outline, but your main points should remain the same.

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