An outline helps you organize a complex project, and is best viewed as a research tool. Unlike the outlines that you may have learned about in high school, the outline is not something you do just before writing. The format that I suggest below is a living document – during the research process, you should keep going back to the outline, filling in the gaps, changing the structure or specific parts, and constantly update the file. I recommend that they be kept on your hard drive in your word processing format. I keep multiple copies of outlines after major revisions – someone who looks at the series of outlines can see changes in my thinking over time.
The outline keeps you organized by keeping you on your focus, pointing out gaps in your collection of data and literature review, and identifying the structure of your argument. It is not just the five elements that you may have learned before (introduction, three sections for the body, conclusion) it has detail that you should go back to every once in a while to see if you are on track.
The first part is a short statement of the paper (something that can easily be converted into an abstract):
- Title: this is important as a working statement of your research
- Thesis Statement: the main hypothesis of the research project
- Assumptions/Research Questions: the underlying theoretical assumptions of specific research questions that will help you test the above hypothesis
- Structure of Argument: in broad strokes, what are the cases, specific events, or data that you will be using to address your research questions and main hypothesis
The next parts constitute the actual outline of your research paper. For a thesis-length paper, you will have multiple chapters, where each chapter can be seen as a mini-paper in itself. As a result, I suggest that you incorporate the above elements into each chapter outline, but adjusted for the specificity of each section. Chapter outlines should have:
- Title of the chapter
- Goal of the chapter (mini-thesis statement for the chapter)
- Data and Relevant Literature for the chapter
This is an important part of making your outline a research tool; by identifying specific data that you will be using, you may find that there’s a little more fieldwork (or a little more library research) that you need to do to write this chapter.
- Structure of the chapter
Include number of pages for each section – this will help you keep the writing goals in sight.
You can also add relevant quotes (with page numbers – you should also be maintaining a research bibliography as you collect literature) in the outline. The key thing is to put whatever information you feel will help you in the writing of the project. There are programs out there like Microsoft OneNote that can help you keep track of things as well; I use Evernote to manage fieldnotes, various types of data, articles that I’ve collected, and notes that I’ve taken on the literature.
As you move on in the writing process, go back and update your outline so that it reflects the actual structure of the drafts that you have written. This will help you see the overall structure of the argument
that you are making.
Here are examples (an early one and a later one) of outlines from my own work (to my dissertation – compare it, if you’re bored, to my book God Aboveground) to give you an idea of what an outline looks like. Below are some links for further reference.
Developing an Outline (from Purdue University)
Using Outlines (from Indiana University)