Outlining is a crucial step in the research paper writing process. If you want to write a clear and focused paper, you first need to write an outline. While it's possible to write a paper without the outline, doing so may result in a disorganized final product. In general, all outlines share a few common elements: headings, sub-headings and topics. However, there is tremendous variation in how these elements are arranged.
Outlining With Sentences
Sentence outlines include full sentences for each topic covered in the final paper. In a sentence outline, every argument that appears in the final copy is articulated in a succinct form. If someone read a sentence outline, they'd get a shorthand version of the final paper. For a research paper, each sentence in the outline should correspond to a paragraph in the final paper. If the paper is broken down into sections, each sentence should be placed under a headline for the section to which it pertains.
Outlining by Topic
Topic outlines break the paper down by section, sub-section and topic. They don't summarize each argument in the paper. Instead, they provide a list of things mentioned in each argument. For example, if you want to argue that smoking causes cancer, you might outline "I. Link between smoking and cancer; A. Studies showing link; 1. Lab study; a. Specific evidence." Alphanumeric outlines use Roman numerals for the main topic, capital letters for the sub-topic, Arabic numerals for topics beneath the sub-topic, and lowercase letters for specific examples. Decimal outlines use only numbers (e.g., 1.1, 1.2., 1.3).
Outlining in Style -- MLA vs. APA
Different academic style guides sometimes require different outlines. If your professor wants to see a completed copy of your outline, you have to provide a copy written in whichever style your professor prefers. If your instructor wants the outline in Modern Language Association (MLA) style, you should provide an alphanumeric outline with full sentences and a thesis clearly stated at the top of the page. If your professor prefers the American Psychological Association (APA) format, you still provide an alphanumeric outline with a thesis at the top, but you may choose topics or sentences for the content.
Shooting for Bullet Points
For short research papers, a brief list of bullet points may suffice as an outline. This type of outline is appropriate if your paper is less than 1,000 words and if you don't need to hand in the outline to your teacher. When writing bullet points, you can use short topic statements. For example, a bullet outline for a policy paper might read "1. Intro; 2. Economic point; 3. Social point; 4. Political point; 5. Conclusion," but you may use full sentence bullet points, if you prefer.