Preparing an Outline

You probably would not consider traveling to a new country or city without first getting a map. The same is true about writing about a topic area that is new to you. Virtually all good writers develop an outline before they begin to write. Although it may seem that an outline takes a lot of time that can be better utilized in writing itself, you will find in the end that preparing an outline first is much more time-efficient than writing without one. More importantly, using an outline virtually always leads to a better quality paper.

Later in this guide, we will cover how to write a primary research paper. Let's first consider how general survey papers in psychology are written. The first section in almost all papers is the introduction. Here you need to introduce your topic and develop some type of perspective. Why are you writing about this topic? What are your goals for writing this paper? The introduction is meant to inform the reader about your purpose or goal. Consider the use of an anecdote, an interesting statistic or piece of information or an appropriate quote. Give some historical information and provide a transition to the next section.

Once you have introduced the topic, you usually need to do some type of literature review. How detailed this review should be depends on the type of paper you are writing. When you are writing a research paper in Psy 210, the review should be more detailed than when you are writing a reaction to a book for Psy 100. Check with your professor if you have any questions. The process described in the previous section about using the library should have provided you with more than enough material to write this introduction. In general, write the review as if the reader knows very little about the topic. Also, as mentioned in the last section, a literature review should cover at least the preceding five to ten years. Of course, you don't have to talk about every single study that was published during this time, but you do need to discuss the major articles. At the end of this section you should summarize your findings. For example, what is the major problem? What conclusions can you draw from the literature review? What other questions remain? The last paragraph should also introduce the next section.

Now that you have completed an adequate literature review, the next step in most papers is to give your own ideas and perspectives. This may come from the review you completed and other aspects of the course (e.g., text, lectures, and videos.). Many students downplay this section, but it is often the most important. In other words, the professor is probably already familiar with the literature in the field. What he or she really wants to know is what you think and what ideas can be supported by the literature. This is often the main body of the paper so be sure to spend a lot of time thinking about and organizing it.

Feel free to be creative in this section, but make sure you have some support for your ideas. In other words, don't just present some highly speculative and improbable suggestions. Base your ideas on previous findings and information that is presented in the literature review. This section should also show that you understand the topic (problem) and how it has evolved over the years. One caution! It is very easy to offer the ideas of others as one's own. Remember, if you use the ideas of others, you need to cite the source (see section on Plagiarism). Make sure you make it perfectly clear to the reader which ideas are yours and which belong to someone else. This may sound like a minor point, but in fact it is the backbone of scientific writing. We will have more to say about this later.

The last section of your paper should include a summary and conclusion. In general, it should summarize where the writer has taken the reader. This is another section that many students often ignore, but again it is very important. What are the main points that you tried to make in your paper? Review the original purpose of the paper that you presented in the introduction. Did you achieve your goal? If not, you will have to make some changes. Revision will always lead to a better paper (and consequently a better grade). What are the future directions? What still needs to be done (researched, studied) in the field? Taken as whole, your paper should tell a story. As such, it should have an easy-to-follow beginning, middle and end.

An example of a simple outline follows. Although it probably can be developed further, it is a good starting point. In general, the outline should include approximately three or four levels of complexity as shown below:

The Role of Self-Disclosure in Psychotherapy

  1. Introduction
    1. What is self-disclosure?
    2. Historical context
      1. Freud
        1. Neo-Freudians
      2. Contemporary psychotherapists
    3. Why is it important?
  2. Literature Review
    1. Jourard
    2. Gender differences
    3. Self-disclosure as a process
    4. Self-disclosure as a personality trait
    5. Problems in conducting research
      1. no commonly accepted definition
      2. how to measure it
      3. types of self-disclosure
      4. effects of the target person
        1. male/female differences
    6. Recent findings
  3. Therapist self-disclosure
    1. Pros and cons
    2. How different orientations view therapist self-disclosure
    3. Patient-therapist interactions
    4. Timing
  4. Personal Viewpoints
    1. Personal experiences with self-disclosure
    2. Experiences of friends or family
    3. Comments
  5. Summary
    1. What do we know?
    2. What do we need to know?
    3. Future directions
    4. Suggestions for future research
    5. Conclusion