APA research paper outline

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Why Doing an Outline for Your Research Paper?

APA Research Paper Outline

After you’ve submitted a research proposal and had it approved, you’ll need to create an outline for the paper, most likely following the APA format research paper outline. When you create an outline for a research paper, you’re creating a general plan that you intend to follow in the presentation of the speech or paper. An outline will show what order the topics will be discussed, the importance of each topic and how it is relevant to the paper’s central idea, and what, if any, relationships the paper’s different topics have to each other.

An outline is a formal plan that helps the writer think about the central idea or theme and helps provide organization for the paper. You can use outlines to verify whether your ideas connect to each other, to determine what order works best for the paper, or to figure out if you have enough evidence to validate every point you intend on making in your paper. No matter what kind of paper you’re writing, a research paper outline can be extremely helpful in creating an overall picture of your paper.

There are two separate kinds of research paper outlines; a topic outline and the sentence outline.

*A topic outline is created with short phrases and is especially useful when you’re including information about a large number of issues that could be l arranged in many ways.

*A sentence outline is written in full sentences, and is typically used when a paper has focus mainly on more complex ideas and topics. A sentence outline is very useful for this type of paper because the sentences used to create the outline have a lot f the details within themselves, so the sentences can be inclusive of those details instead of having to create an outline with a lot of short phrases, which would result in an outline that could go on for pages. For example, you would probably use this when creating a science research paper outline as you would probably have a lot of details and ideas.

Both types of outlines follow very strict formats, and use Roman and Arabic numbers in addition to small and capital letters of the alphabet. This enables the writer and reader to easily follow the organization of the paper. There is no specific rule for what type of research paper outline format you should use, as that greatly depends on research paper topics and length of the paper, and you should choose the one you feel would work best for your paper.

APA Research Paper Outline Format

There are several ways to create outlines for research papers as there are so many variations from paper to paper. It is important to make your outline as detailed as possible so that you have an easy ‘map’ to follow when writing your actual paper. In order to make the outline readable, you will use numeration and indentation to organize your thoughts and ideas.

The first thing you should do is write out the topics and sections you intend to cover. In order to do this, you will want to create ‘headings.’ After you’ve done this, you will need to conclude what headings you will need to put information or other headings under. You will need to continue doing this until you feel you have created an outline where one topic moves easily to the next and that all information underneath is relevant to its heading.

Most outlines utilize a combination of Roman numerals and letters in order to establish an organized framework of ideas, although occasionally you may be asked to use a decimal system. When creating an outline, you will determine what are going to be the name ideas and what will be ‘sub-topics,’ or ideas that will be placed underneath the main ideas. You will have to figure out what ideas belong to larger ‘parent’ ideas. Here is a short research paper outline example of how an outline uses numbers and letters, although every outline will be different:









Notice the way the sub-topics are indented once it has been established that they belong to a parent heading, and the way everything is indented more as the ideas are further broken down.

Four Crucial Points for an Effective APA Outline

When creating an APA research paper outline, there are four main things you should be doing so that you’re creating an effective outline.


In order to achieve coordination, you should ensure that all information put in Heading 1 has the same significance of the information in Heading 2. This is also true for subheadings, which should have lesser significance than the headings.


When creating a research paper outline, your attempt should be to create a parallel structure, meaning that all of your headings should match stylistically, linguistically, and in appearance. Essentially you’re attempting to make every heading ‘equal’ and also making sure that the same tense and style is used in each heading. Here is a short research paper outline sample that demonstrates parallelism:

I. Select Specific Colleges

II. Complete Applications

Notice that  “select” and “complete” are both verbs and that the same verb tense is used, in this case, the present tense, which is usually the preferred tense when writing an outline.


To achieve subordination, you should be making sure that the information in the main headings are general, while the subheadings contain specific information. For example:

  1. Describe someone who is influential in your life
    1. Favorite teacher
    2. Grandparent

Above, you can see this principle, as ‘influential people’ is general and ‘favorite teacher’ and ‘grandparent’ are specific categories within influential people.


To accomplish division, you should divide every heading into two or more parts. For example:

  1. Create resume
    1. List past coursework
    2. List past work experience
    3. List all volunteer experience

There aren’t any limits to the number of subdivisions to use for your headings, but if it begins to look as though you have quite a few, you should see if you can combine some of them.

APA Format Outline Example                                                        

Free APA Outline Example

APA Outline SampleIf you’re still unclear as to how to write a research paper outline, take a look at this full example for a research paper on William Shakespeare. Take note of the way everything is divided and how numbers and letters are used to further break down ideas until a full picture of the main topic is achieved.

  1. INTRODUCTION ( Thesis statement on William Shakespeare and brief introduction into subject.
  2. BODY- Discuss Shakespeare’s life, work, family, marriage, and later years
    1. Early years in Stratford upon Avon
      1. Shakespeare’s family
        1. Shakespeare’s father
        2. Shakespeare’s mother
        3. Shakespeare’s marriage
          1. Anne Hathaway- Her life and marriage to Shakespeare
          2. Reference to Hathaway in Shakespeare’s poetry
          3. Shakespeare’s work
            1. Plays
              1. Comedies
                1. Much Ado About Nothing
                2. Tragedies
                  1. Romeo and Juliet
                3. Historical work
                  1. King John
              2. Sonnets
              3. Other poetry
            2. Later Life
              1. Last work
              2. Retirement in Stratford
                1. Shakespeare’s death
                2. Shakespeare’s burial
                  1. Epitaph
    1. Summary and Analysis
      1. Early years
      2. Shakespeare’s work
      3. Shakespeare’s later years
    2. Thesis Restated
    3. Concluding Statements

How To Format Headings On A Research Paper Outline

Currently, there are guidelines that state boldface type is to be used for headings instead of italics. Additionally, the following should be adhered to:

-All main sections of the research paper should be centered and be in boldface type. No punctuation is required and all of the words should be capitalized with the exception of prepositions that are less than four letters long.

-Level 1 headings should be centered, boldface, and have Uppercase and Lowercase Headings

-Level 2- Subsections are to be considered Level 2 headings, and should be against the left margin in boldface type. Level 2 headings should have Uppercase and Lowercase headings.

-Level 3 headings should be formatted similarly with their heading indented five spaces and in boldface type. The first word of Level 3 headings should be capitalized as well as proper nouns and subtitles. A period should be used at the end of each Level 3 heading, and the text of each paragraph should follow, starting on the same line.

-Level 4 headings should be indented, be boldface type, should be italicized, with a lowercase heading and a period.

-Level 5 headings should be indented and italicized with a lowercase heading and period.

So if the article had four sections, and some were subsections and others weren’t, you would use headings depending on subordination. Therefore, section headings should use a level one format, and subsections a level two format. Subsections of the subsections should use a level three format.

Some More APA Formatting Tips

When you type your APA formatted paper, you should type it double spaced on standard paper with one inch margins. You should use a 10-12 pt. Times New Roman font, and a page header should be on every page.

Quotations that are shorter than 40 words should be put in the body of the text and should have double quotation marks around them. Mention the author’s surname, the year the work you’re referencing was published, and the page number in brackets. If a quote is more than four words, you should use a ‘block quotation’ starting on a new line, and you should indent five spaces and not use any quotation marks.

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