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Organizing the Research Paper & Outlining

You have probably asked yourself this question:  Why an outline? Well, here is my answer. You need a Strategic Plan.  In fact, if you want, you don’t even need the term “outline”…but replace it with “strategic plan”.  Strategic planning will take time and effort but the research paper will be made easier with good planning and patience. The time and effort put into developing an effective strategic plan will save you time and effort in the coming weeks. 

The process of identifying what the paper’s purpose it and then how to achieve this purpose is known as strategic planning. And it’s important for any organized paper.  Without a clear picture of where you paper is headed the path will be rocky. There will be indecisiveness, second guessing and heading off into directions that you don’t want to pursue.

To help you get started in this process, watch the following video on YouTube and then complete the Collaboration Forum for the Unit 4 Introduction.

The following YouTube video may help you envision how to set-up your outline as well.


The Fourth Lecture: Organizing An Essay by Outlining.  Often student writers are taught short-term solutions to the problem of organizing an essay. The most common short-term essay is the “five-paragraph essay” format. The five-paragraph essay uses the following organization:

  1. Introduction–Background and thesis
  2. First Body Paragraph–The first reason why the thesis is true
  3. Second Body Paragraph–The second reason why the thesis is true
  4. Third Body Paragraph–The third reason why the thesis is true
  5. Conclusion–Recap of essay

It is easy to see how you could arrange an outline around the five-paragraph essay.  However, most student writers find that college professors often demand far more expansive essays.  Indeed, student writers should know that an essay’s organization can be pre-planned.  What follows are some common ways to organize a research paper.

Using Examples: The Essence of a strong Outline

Often students are asked to consider large and important issues in their writing assignments. These so-called “big ideas” essays present students with some large generalization and then ask students to analyze it. For example, in a political science class a student might be asked to write an essay on the freedom Americans have, and how it compares to that enjoyed by citizens of Mexico. Or in a psychology class a student might be asked to write an essay on the importance of honesty in personal and professional relationships. Both of these topics require students to answer difficult and possibly unanswerable questions. Because students feel the need to discuss all possible aspects of the topic, students respond to such general topics by writing broad and unspecific essays full of generalities. As you learned in Unit 3, the solution to this is Writing that Uses References! Students need to focus their discussion of the large and general issue by focusing on specific examples. A good outline, like an essay, presents more examples than ideas.

Essay Part


Purpose (not all necessary for every essay)



Background for the topic

Setting out the issues

Focusing the argument


Less General

What other people have said about the issue

Ways of further defining or subdividing the issue

What possible ways there are to think about the issue

Why some aspects of the issue can be ignored

The specific aspect of the issue the writer intends to focus on

Why this specific aspect is representative of many other aspects

Specific Aspect


Description of the specific

Analysis of the specific


More General

How the specific aspect represents the larger issue

How the specific aspect helps us understand other aspects of the larger issue



Summing up

How our understanding of the specific aspect and the larger issue might be changed by the writer’s analysis

How we might act upon the ideas the writer has presented

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