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Research Planning Guide

Use this guide to learn about the research process and plan your research project.

Step 5: Devise a Preliminary Outline

Most students think that creating the outline is something you do after the paper has been written.  But if you want to save time and avoid frustration, make a preliminary outline NOW.

Why? Because the preliminary outline can serve as your road map for research.  If answering your research question is the goal of your project, then the preliminary outline will be your guide to getting there. 

How do you create a preliminary outline? First, realize that all research papers will start with an introduction and end with a conclusion.  In between, there are usually three to five points that must be covered in order to answer the question sufficiently.  So, a typical preliminary outline might look like this:

I.     Introduction

II.    Point A

III.   Point B

IV.   Point C

V.    Conclusion

At this early stage, the important part is to establish your 3-5 major points.  If you have taken the time to gain some working knowledge of your topic (Step 3), this should be fairly easy.  Let your research question be the source for your points: look at the language of your question, and ask yourself what kind of evidence you will need to gather.  

Here's an example.  Suppose this is your research question: "Will stronger gun-control legislation protect lives?"  Your preliminary outline might look something like this:

I.     Introduction  

II.    Evidence that gun-control laws protect citizens

III.   Evidence that gun-control laws have no effect on civic safety

IV.   Analysis of effectiveness of current gun-control laws

V.    Conclusion

Once you have a preliminary outline, your research process will become easier.  As you search for books and articles on your topic, you can look for items that will support the various parts of your outline.  You can even organize your research results by grouping items according to their usefulness for supporting the different points in your outline. 

Remember: this outline is PRELIMINARY.  That means that you can always change it as you go along.  The preliminary outline is not a blueprint that you have to follow—it's a guide that lets you know what kind of information you're going to need to adequately answer your research question. 

Trash or Treasure?

As you search for sources, use your preliminary outline to determine whether the sources you find will be useful in supporting the main points of your paper.  Ask yourself: "Is this trash—or treasure?"  Keep the treasure (of course) and THROW AWAY THE TRASH.