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How to Do a Research Paper Outline From Your Note Cards

by Christopher Cascio

An outline is a brief plan of your paper in which you arrange your objectives and subordinate supporting material accordingly. You include titles for each section of the essay along with brief descriptions of your main point within those sections and any sub-point within those main points. Making an outline from note cards is logical because it allows you to organize your cards first, which makes transferring that information to your outline easier.

Organizing Your Material

Arrange note cards that contain introductory material -- including your opening and your thesis statement -- into one pile. Place a blank index on top of the pile and write "introduction" on it.

Arrange note cards containing background information into another pile. Place a blank index card on top of this pile and write "exposition" on it.

Arrange note cards containing evidence that supports your thesis into another pile. Place a blank index card on top of that pile and write "evidence" on it.

Arrange note cards containing your conclusion into another pile. Place a blank index card on top of this pile and write "conclusion" on it.

Writing Your Outline

Near the top of a sheet of paper, write "I. Introduction." On the line below, write "A. Hook:" Beside "Hook:," write the information from your introduction pile that you plan to use as your opening sentence.

On the line below your hook, write "Thesis:," followed by your thesis statement, which should also come from your "introduction" pile.

Two lines below your thesis statement, write "II. Body." On the line below that, write "A. Exposition." On the subsequent lines below "Exposition," write a sentence that briefly describes each main point of background information you plan to include in your paper in the order you plan to introduce it. This information should come from your notes in your "exposition" pile. Label each point "1., 2.," and so on.

On the line below your final point of exposition, write "B. Evidence." On the subsequent lines below this subheading, list brief explanations of each point of support for your thesis in the order you plan to introduce them. These points should come directly from your "evidence" pile and should be labeled "1., 2., 3.," and so on.

Two lines below your final point of evidence, write "III. Conclusion." On the line below that, write a sentence that briefly describes the main point of the information in your "conclusion" pile.

Items you will need
  • Note cards from your research
  • Blank index cards
  • Lined paper
  • Pencil

Tips

  • If your main points in any section have sub-points, leave enough empty lines below each main point for each sub-point. Label sub-points with lowercase letters: a., b., c. and so on.
  • When writing point descriptions, use the same grammatical style to maintain parallel structure.
  • Keep your point descriptions brief. Your outline is only a blueprint. It should be easy to read.
  • When you've finished your outline, read it to check that the progression of your argument is logical and flows well. If it doesn't consistently move toward proving your thesis, consider reorganizing your material.
  • It helps if you label your note cards according to section relevance or chronology, or in any way that makes identifying a card's role in the essay easier.

Warning

  • Just because you've finished your outline doesn't mean you can discard your notes. The outline is only a brief model of your essay. Keep your notes for the drafting process.

About the Author

Christopher Cascio is a memoirist and holds a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing and literature from Southampton Arts at Stony Brook Southampton, and a Bachelor of Arts in English with an emphasis in the rhetoric of fiction from Pennsylvania State University. His literary work has appeared in "The Southampton Review," "Feathertale," "Kalliope" and "The Rose and Thorn Journal."

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