How to Outline a History Research Paper


Students of history find an outline indispensable in organizing their description, analysis and interpretation of historical documents for presentation in a paper tracking an event's significance over time. A history outline illustrates the chronological order of historical events, their relative importance and their relationship with each other. Professors often require a formal outline that states a clear thesis and includes well-developed ideas that reference supporting historical documentation. An informal outline functions as a loosely organized study guide or a very detailed plan. As your research progresses, an outline will enable you to assess the development of your history paper's argument and to logically organize your research.

Things You'll Need

  • Pen or pencil
  • Paper
  • Word processor
  • Research notes
  • Plan the line of argument your history paper will take as you go through the research process. Present the central idea of the history paper in the form of a thesis statement to head the outline. Outline the question or debate the history paper will address in the thesis sentence, which must be a complete, grammatical sentence expressing your point of view on the subject.

  • Use single words or brief phrases for the headings in a topic-style outline. For example, a research paper handling the negative consequences of Christopher Columbus's discovery of the New World might list "Decimation of native populations" as a main heading formatted as a phrase for a topic-style outline. Express headings in complete sentences for a sentence-style outline. For example, a main heading might similarly state: "Christopher Columbus' discovery of the New World resulted in the decimation of the native populations of North America."

  • List the main headings, which are the most important points or concepts in your history research paper and maintain a logical flow from one point to the next. Preserve parallel structure with each heading and subheading: if the first heading starts with a noun, the second heading should start with a noun. Remain general at this stage and label each main heading with Roman numerals (I., II., etc...). List three to five main points to handle in the main body of the history paper's text.

  • Expand on each main heading with subheadings detailing relevant, supporting information in regard to that topic. For example, a subheading might state "Introduction of foreign diseases" to fall under the main heading "Decimation of native populations." Indicate subheadings with capital letters, starting with A, B and C. List a minimum of two subheadings to support each main heading. Subheadings require more research than the general points. Listing them will organize your thoughts, notes and source material into a logical progression of ideas.

  • Expand on subheadings further by listing information under each subheading as subtopics, using a minimum of two subtopics per subheading. A sample subtopic might list "Types of diseases" under the subheading "Introduction of foreign diseases." Indicate subtopics with Arabic numerals 1, 2 and 3.

  • Expand on subtopics by including details, indicated by small letters a, b and c. Include any additional information as supporting details, and label these points with lowercase Roman numerals i, ii and iii. Listing historical documents, dates and cross-references at this stage in the outline may ensure that history students outlining a research paper include all relevant and accurate sources--especially as organizing research for a history paper may prove complicated.

  • Revise your outline and ensure that you use capital letters only as the first letter of each entry except for proper nouns. Indent each level of division in your outline so that all letters or numbers of the same kind line up with each other, maintaining subordination by indenting more specific subheadings or subtopics under headings that indicate more general information.

Tips & Warnings

  • Chronological ordering is the primary organization structure for history papers, as writers discuss many events in the context of the time order in which they occurred. In other cases, a spatial arrangement, which describes physical proximity, is best suited for the material. Another common order in outlines starts with a general idea and then supports it with specific examples.
  • Each level of division must have at least two points.

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