How to Outline the Format for APA

Following proper outlining methods and adhering to APA formatting standards help students produce well-organized research papers.

In 1929, The American Psychological Association (APA) created specific guidelines to maintain consistency in scientific writing. While an outline is not technically an official section of an APA paper, instructors may request that you include one with a paper or other major assignment. Following guidelines for writing formal outlines while considering APA style suggestions, will help you create an outline that is well organized, balanced and adheres to general APA formatting rules.

Place your title on the first line. Your title should reflect the scope of your paper and can be a phrase. Follow with your thesis statement in the next line. Your thesis statement should state your main point and make an assertion about the topic. The thesis statement, unlike the title, cannot be a phrase. It must be a complete sentence and should not be in question form.

Assign sub-topics Roman numerals using capital letters (I, II, III, IV, etc.). Divide your paper or topic into several large sections according to subject, chronology or another logical method. The sub-topics should follow the sequencing used in your paper.

Label supporting points. Just as the body paragraphs of your paper will include supporting sentences to provide evidence for your claims, so should the outline contain points to support your topics and sub-topics. Designate these points using capital letters (A, B, C, etc.).

Mark further divisions with Arabic numerals (1, 2, 3, 4, etc.). If you wish to include even more detail, then designate the next level of your outline with lower-case letters (a, b, c, d, etc.). Depending upon the amount of information and length of your paper, you may decide to break down the information into even smaller categories. You can mark the next two levels of your outline with Arabic numerals within parentheses [(1), (2), etc.], followed by lower-case letters within parentheses in the next level of division [(a), (b), (c), etc.].

Double-space the outline. Check to see that your page follows general APA formatting guidelines, such as using one-inch margins on all sides (top, bottom, left and right). Use a simple 10 or 12-point font such as Times New Roman or Arial.

Balance the information. For every I in your outline, you must have a II; for every A you must provide a B, etc. If you find yourself with a stranded 1 with no 2, for example, you may need to conduct more research on the sub-topic for informational balance, or remove that level of division from the outline.

Cite your sources. If writing a full-sentence outline, which usually contains more information than a topic outline, you may include content from the sources of information used to write your paper. In this case, you can list these sources on a separate reference page. If you use any direct quotations in the outline, follow them with in-text citations as well.

  • If you are not basing your outline on a completed paper, you can generate ideas for sub-topics from pre-writing activities such as brainstorming, listing or free writing.

Sherri Jens has been writing since 1995, with articles published in “Visitor Behavior” and “Interpedge.” She has taught writing since 1998 and college-level writing since 2005. Jens holds both a Master of Education in English language arts and a Bachelor of Science in psychology from Jacksonville State University.