Outlining Methods for Term Paper Planning

When you are writing your term paper, you need three things: a good topic to write about, research to conduct, and structure to stick to. An outline is a visualization of your term papers structure. You have probably done an outline at least once, and have some idea on what it is. In this article, you will refresh and deepen your understanding of the outline, its importance, and learn about some techniques of outlining papers.

Before we start, let’s also see why a student is better off with an outline.

Why Do You Need an Outline?

Let’s overview the reasons why you will need to make an outline of your term paper before actually writing it.

  • It organizes your thoughts;
  • It lets you keep an eye on the flow of information;
  • It is a way to ensure that you haven’t missed anything;
  • It provides a structure for your paper;
  • It allows you write your term paper faster.

Nothing improves your efficiency, as well as quality of the content, as planning and a good organization. Without it, it is easy to get lost in research or your own thoughts on the topic. When you have a plan at your hand, you can prioritize and distribute chunks of your task across time. Besides, you have a clear beginning and the end, which doesn’t let you get into the wicked circle of arguments. With a structure, you visualize your work and see the main points that you need to explore. It’s unlikely that you will have the urge to go beyond what’s not on your list.

Research Paper Writing

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All this concerns not only your term paper, but pretty much every paper that you are writing in college. It even goes beyond that. Journalists and fiction authors also tend to outline their works before finalizing them. Still, their methods might differ from the ones that you as a student will use with your research papers.

How to Outline?

In simple words, an outline is a list of important sections in your paper. For a science-report-style term paper, the usual list of sections looks as follows:

  • Introduction;
  • Methods;
  • Results;
  • Discussion;
  • Conclusion.

Introduction and conclusion, however, don’t have to be included in the outline. Still, you can list them as sections as well.

After you’ve made this list of 5 sections, dwell upon it and sketch the main points for each of them. Those can be complete sentences or just key phrases, or short theses.


For the introduction, you’ll need to cover the following elements:

  • The importance of your research;
  • Research goals;
  • A short overview of the methods;
  • A literature review;
  • A thesis statement.


In the Methods section, you will simply need to list all the research methods that you will use. In the text, you’ll also need to explain why you are using these particular methods and what you are using them for.


In Results, you’ll, naturally, provide your results for each of the methods you used. The number of main points here will coincide with the number of methods, in case you used a few, or research procedures, if you used one method.


In the discussion parts, you will need to analyze the results of your research. Thus, you may list all your findings and explain them in the text. At the end, you will be required to talk about the contribution of your study and the significance of your results.


In the conclusion, you normally do the following:

  • Summarize the objectives;
  • List the key findings;
  • Provide the implications of your findings;
  • Make suggestions for the future research.

An important note is that, if you are using numbers or letters to list your ideas, make sure that you don’t have just one of each. In other words, if you have point A, you need to have point B as well; if you have “1.”, you are obliged to provide “2.” too.

Methods of Outlining a Term Paper

How you are doing your outline completely does not matter. You won’t need to submit it to your professor, unless required otherwise. A classical outline is a hierarchical numbered list of your main points, but there are also variations. See below how you can do a term paper outline.

Use Numeration

For the sake of the structure and organization, your sections, points, and arguments can be enumerated. The most popular way to do it is through roman and Arabic numerals. There are several levels of numeration, and each of those is marked accordingly to its hierarchy:

  • Roman numerals — this is the highest level. Mark your main sections with Roman numerals: Introduction (if you include it), Methods, Results, Discussion, and Conclusion (if you list it in the outline).
  • Capital Latin letters — this is the second level. This is for marking the key points of each section: standalone research methods, primary arguments or claims in your body, specific standalone findings, etc.
  • Arabic numerals — this is the third level. This is for listing statements within the subsections (for example, method description and the instruments with particular methods).
  • Lowercase Latin letters — this is the fourth level. All the less important statements, claims, and theses belong there.

Indentation or Bullet Points

Research Paper Outline

If you have trouble with all the letters and numbers and their hierarchy, there is a way to avoid them. You can just slightly varying indentation for the different-level lines to keep the hierarchy intact. For example, you can use no indentation for the section, the smallest one for subsections, and increase it for lower levels. This method is still pretty visual, and you won’t get confused in what goes first and what belongs to where.

As an alternative, you can use bullet points markers of different size and shape to differentiate between the levels. Combining a bulleted list with indentation would work the best.

Similar Formulations

Another great method or technique for outlining is that you write the same-level lines in a similar way. For example, when you write the A-line with an adjective and a noun, try to do it also with the B-line. Say, one of your statements in the Results section is “relationship between X and Z”, then don’t formulate the other statement as “W relates to Y.”

Alternatives to the List Structure

Alternatives to the List Structure

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You can make an outline appear as a list or modify its look. In case you have no specific requirement regarding the outline, you might try to experiment with it. Make it a table or a scheme, in order to better visualize connections and hierarchy. All in all, the outline is a tool that you use to sketch your term paper’s structure and to stick to it.

Sticky Notes

If you want to do the outline in a creative way, you can use sticky notes and a whiteboard. If you don’t have one, a fridge or a wall would do just as well. Just use one sticker for one line (statement or point), and then arrange them in what you consider the most convenient way. The method is widely used by fiction writers, but you can also try it: maybe it will make you more enthusiastic and creative when dealing with your term paper.

The outline itself, along with all the methods and techniques that you’ve seen above, exist to improve the structure of your term paper and make it more solid. They help you visualize what you have to say step by step. While there is a universal way to create an outline, students are free to experiment with its look. Rather than an enumerated list, it can be a system of sticky notes or a mind map. It does not matter what you choose, just make sure it help to make the quality of your paper better.

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Lindsay Gray

Lindsay Gray is a profound academic advisor, tutor and writer. She runs her professional blog at WriteMyTermPapers.com – a website offering assistance with paper writing. Her blog is a real find for those struggling with term papers.