Learning how to write an outline for a research paper in MLA style


Of the various styles used in writing research papers, the Modern Language Association (MLA) style is the easiest. The MLA style follows a simple explanatory format that is more concerned with effective communication than form; however, if you are required to adhere to  MLA style you must do so.


If you are required to do so on a regular basis it is essential that you get a copy of the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers read it, write notes in, and keep it handy as a reference.


If at the moment you are under the pressure of a deadline and you do not have time to read the entire MLA Handbook for Writers of Research, then you could start with the MLA Style Lite. The MLA Handbook gives a complete overview of how to write following the MLA style; however, if you are new to writing research papers and don’t even know what questions to ask or you are running out of time, and then start with the MLA Lite.


Regardless of whether you are going to take the time to read the full handbook or start with reading the lite version, if you have a paper due soon, you should begin by writing your outline. You can write your outline before writing your research paper as a helpful guide for your research, but you should revisit your outline and update it to reflect your actual research once completed.


The essential elements of the MLA outline:


Header –The header must contain your name, the name of the instructor, and the date. The header is written to the upper left much the same as in a business letter.


Outline/Title – Centered at the top just after the header. Use the word outline and on the next line, write the title.


Thesis – Summarize your thesis into one sentence or two at most.


Standard hierarchical format

  • capital Roman numerals.
  • capital letters.
  • Arabic numerals
  • lowercase letters

The standard hierarchical format is like this:

I.  Present the biggest idea here

A. Present information about the first big idea here

1. Present the first detail about 1 here

2. Present the second detail about 1 here

a. Present the first detail about I.A.2. here

b. Present the second detail about I.A.2. here

B. Present more information about the first big idea here

II. Present the second biggest idea here


Complete sentences – In the MLA style, clarity is key, so be sure to write complete sentences for each of the entries in the outline.  

Follow these guidelines and you will be sure to have a top notch outline written in MLA style.