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Organizing, Researching, and Outlining a Research Paper

Organizing, Researching, and Outlining a Research Paper

Author: Gavin McCall

This lesson discusses how to organize research in order to create an outline for an academic research essay.

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Video Transcription

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Welcome to English Composition. I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me.

What are we going to learn today? Today we're going to learn about how to organize your research and form it into a functional outline. Then we'll look at an example so we all have a sense for what an organized outline looks like and what it can do for the writing process.

We've already talked about how to conduct research, but once you've done it all-- collected the data, recorded the bibliographic information, and taken thoughtful notes on every source you think you'll need-- you've still got to figure out how to get all that research into the essay so your readers can benefit from it. This part of the writing process is highly conceptual and builds a lot of high level thinking skills. Taking your time with it will pay off in the long run, yielding not only stronger essays, but usually a shorter drafting process as well.

There are two different pre-writing tasks to be performed here, both of which are intended to clarify and organize your thinking on and about the project. The first comes immediately post-research. Ask yourself what primary points, ideas, or arguments you want to make with the essay and in what ways they have changed or developed since you started the research process.

Then, with those answers in mind, think about how you could organize the research you have, what sources connect to each other, and which stand alone. Which tertiary sources support your secondary and primary sources? It's a good idea to quickly put together a skeleton or outline that loosely organizes the broad ideas within the broad categories of your research.

One you've used these pre-writing techniques to organize your thoughts and research, it's time to begin creating a full outline. It's important to have a detailed outline at this point, one that structures a plan for the essay and includes the flow of ideas, as well as the placement and purpose of research.

This kind of detailed outline should include several key components. The first and most critical is a working thesis and any ideas for the introduction, main ideas, and how you might want to try and the reader. It's a good idea to have a concept in mind for the introduction, but I don't recommend spending too much time on the details of it yet. It's often more effective to focus on the body of the essay first and return to the introduction later on in the drafting process. That way you'll have a clearer idea of what exactly you're introducing.

A detailed outline should also have headings, which include controlling ideas, points, and arguments organized in a coherent order. Traditionally, these are marked with Roman numerals. You should also includes subheadings below each controlling idea, noting key points or logic to discuss the controlling idea. Traditionally, these are indicated by capital letters.

The outline should also use source headings below each key point which note the sources you will use to support the points and ideas. They can come in the form of direct quotes, page or paragraph numbers, or source sections. Whatever you think will best help you find the information you need during the drafting process.

Finally, the outline should include some notes on the conclusion, any ideas that you should revisit, and how you plan to wrap up the essay.

Now we're going to look at a couple detailed outlines so we can get a sense for not only what they look like, but what they can do for an essay. In this first example, as you can see, it starts with a working thesis. The thesis states, in order to better serve the interests of the US and other nations, we should no longer use our military as a world police and devote that funding and those personnel to helping other nations indirectly through training and support.

It also has notes about the introduction, a plan for how to hook the readers with statistics about how many people are killed by American soldiers, while also acknowledging the complexity of the topic. And there's also a source that the writer plans to use.

As the outline continues, you can see that we have headings indicated by Roman numerals, each with their own subheadings indicated by capital letters. And within each subheading, notes on sources that are intended to be used. For example, under the second heading, The Problem, the first subheading is A, a section in which the writer will discuss how often our motives are confused or years later we end up supporting those we fought or vice versa.

There are there sources that the writer plans on using here. As you can see, the outline doesn't just detail which sources to be used, but what exactly they're talking about and where the relevant passages are. For example, the Source 1, Ropollo, is discussing history in the Middle East and the relevant pages are between 98 and 122. This will save the writer time during the drafting process, as he or she won't have to look through the entire book of Ropollo's to figure out where exactly that relevant passage was.

You should also be able to see the plan for the progression of ideas from the problem to better solutions being achieved to counterarguments. It's particularly important to include counterarguments in an essay like this given that it's a controversial topic and it's proposing a specific course of action, which will always have advantages and disadvantages.

Notice how in the Counterargument section, there are two primary counterarguments that the writer intends to bring up and refute. That the world needs US involvement to remain stable, which the writer intends to counter with the argument that our involvement has caused many of the problems. And the other counter argument is the if we don't do it, someone else will argument with the counter with proposals to empower the UN and other diplomatic organizations. And again, always with sources to support the proposals and claims.

The outline ends with a conclusion, which includes not only a plan for how to close and wrap up the essay-- discussing the complexity of the issue but claiming that because what we're doing is obviously not working a change in broad policy is required. It also includes a quote that the author plans to use from President Obama. By itself, the recognition that we have common hopes and dreams won't end all the gridlock or solve all our problems or substitute for the painstaking work of building consensus and making the difficult compromises needed. The writer wants to use this quote because it's in the spirit of the kind of proposal that this essay is putting forth.

And the intended conclusion should wrap up with discussion about the importance of putting unbiased people and organizations in control and a final call to action to be proactive instead of stagnant.

Now let's look at another outline. This one is working on the exact same subject, but putting forth a completely different thesis. This outline's thesis is that under President Obama, the US foreign policy has improved the welfare of people around the world and should continue. So in many ways, running counter to the last outline's argument.

Notice how even though these two outlines are putting forth completely different arguments, they have very similar structures. This one also starts with an introduction, a plan for how to hook the reader with information about turmoil in places like Afghanistan and Middle East learned earlier presidents' terms, and then comparing them to now.

Notice how in this outline there is also a plan for progression of ideas. In this case, more chronological than the last one. Here we're moving from history to present and future, and then finally to a section on counterarguments. And for each of these, there are planned sources. Books, articles, even a piece from C-SPAN, are all intended to be used to support the different claims of this argument, from earlier foreign policies were less interested in working with people and more about policing or controlling them to how having mixed battlefields and using both force and diplomacy works in the present.

It also intends counter the argument that peaceful solutions are better, countering this with real world examples of peaceful but failed movements and sources for those. Here too we end with a plan for the conclusion. The writer plans to wrap up the essay by talking about the importance of moderation in response to complex problems and then discussing Obama's policies, both abroad and at home , using a source for that.

And then finally, recognizing that the issue will probably never be solved completely but that just because things aren't working perfectly, it's no reason to think they aren't improving. And here a source that the author either plans to summarize or quote from.

So as you can see, neither of these outlines are the essays themselves, but they do include most of the relevant and important details that are needed. With this, the writer should be able to quickly and effectively draft out their essays.

What did we learn today? We learned about how writers organize their research, including building detailed research outlines. Then we looked at a couple examples.

I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me.

Example Outlines

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  • Detailed Outline

    Structures a plan for the essay that includes the flow of ideas as well as the placement and purpose of research.