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Writing the Research Paper

Unit V: Creating a Formal, Detailed Outline

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Unit V: The Formal Outline

And the true order of going, or being led by another, to the things of love, is to begin from the beauties of earth and mount upwards for the sake of that other beauty, using these steps only, and from one going on to two, and from two to all fair forms to fair practices,and from fair practices to fair notions, until from fair notions he arrives at the notion of absolute beauty, and at last knows what the essence of beauty is.

Plato, Symposium

Introductory Remarks

Now you have enough information to start working on the details of your report structure. In this unit, we put the formal outline together after reviewing our information one last time.

Why didn't we just start with an outline and fill it out?

Starting with a particular plan could prejudice our research. Depending on whether you are doing a state of the art project or original research in a given area, having a formal plan might cause you to skip over things that don't fit, or to skew information so that it will fit. By making out outline on the basis of our research findings, we can create an honest report, rather than some pre-determined conclusion.

Points for this Unit

Final Organization

Thesis Statement Revision

You should now have a pretty good idea of the factual information available on your report topic. Assuming that you started with a good idea of the subject area, this information will simply bear out the thesis statement you originally created as a summary answer for your topic question. However, your research might force you to reconsider your argument if you turned up evidence that contradicts your original assumptions. It's a good idea to consider revising your thesis statement at this point, either to include some aspect you hadn't considered, shift the focus slightly, or — if you actually found information to support a new position and are convinced by it — change your thesis to declare your new position.

Carefully review your information and your original thesis statement and consider changes required to the thesis statement. Be sure that you now have adequate information (or will shortly be able to finish the research to get it) to support your position.

The Formal Outline

Now it is time to turn your informal “note” organization outline into a formal outline. You may want to review the Writing for the College-bound Unit 13 Outlining techniques before continuing, just to brush up on your formatting techniques, but you should be far less concerned with format than with content.

Examine the lines of the informal outline you produced for the last unit. These had the format “Title: keyword1, keyword2”. Now you want to turn each line into a major point with subpoints. Each point should be a noun-verb phrase that can become the topic sentence of a paragraph.

Take your time and work through the outline carefully: the more effort you put into making it complete, the less actual writing you will wind up having to do for the draft: much of your writing will be simply assembling the summaries and citations you have already written out. Be sure that every main point supports some aspect of the thesis statement as it now stands, and that every subpoint supports its own main point clearly. Eliminate any extraneous information, no matter how fascinating, that doesn't serve the purpose of the thesis statement (but make notes and put these in a safe place to use in another paper).

The first and last major points of your final outline should be formulated to serve as the introduction and conclusion of your report. These may be several paragraphs long (in a book-length treatment, they might be entire chapters). Be sure that your introduction not only includes some form of your thesis statement, but also sets the limitations and scope of your report, and identifies and explains any technical terminology required by the average reader to understand the overall argument. You will, of course, explain any technical terminology involved in the details or examples as you progress through them in the body of the report, but it is important to be clear right at the beginning if your thesis statement involves concepts that might not be familiar to the intelligent reader.

The First Draft

You should still have numbers or some other notation system linking each of your more important research notes to a Title: keyword point in your informal outline. Create a separate copy of your formal outline, and cut and paste or type your notes into the right position. Adjust the outline and note order to achieve a smooth flow of ideas.

This is your rough draft. You still have a lot of writing and formatting work to do, and possibly some research into details, but most of the tough organization work is done.

Assignment for this Unit

Use the procedures outlined above to produce your detailed outline.


  1. Rewrite the thesis statement, or expand it, if necessary. Include it at the top of your outline.
  2. Create your formal outline.
  3. Create your rough draft and begin adjusting the information to improve the flow of ideas. You do not have to turn in this version yet.

Enter your response directly into the Scholars Online Writing the Research Paper Moodle forum for this unit. Review the submissions from your fellow students and offer constructive criticism to help them refine their ideas.