How to Write an Outline in APA Format

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Writing a psychology paper can present a number of challenges, from picking a good topic to finding high-quality sources to cite. Formatting your paper in APA style can also be difficult at times, particularly if you have never used this format before. Writing a solid outline is one of the first steps you should take as you research, organize, and write your paper.

In most cases, you will probably not need to include an outline with your paper unless your instructor specifically requires one. However, having a solid outline is always a good writing strategy. Not only will it help you organize your writing, but it will also help you make sure that you are effectively communicating your message.

What Is APA Format?

APA format is the official style of the American Psychological Association. It is used both in university papers and in professional psychology publications.

Learning the basics of APA format is an important part of creating effective papers and reports in the social sciences. Psychology is not the only field of study that relies on APA format. Other disciplines including education, nursing, economics, and sociology also often rely on this formatting approach.

This format dictates how papers should be styled, including how they are structured, the layout of the page, and how the information should be presented.

APA Format Basics

The APA official publication manual does not provide guidance on the preparation of an APA format outline. However, the manual does specify a number of general rules that you should follow as part of your outline.

  • The margins of your outline should be one-inch on all sides, including the top, bottom, left, and right
  • Use a 12-point, Times New Roman font for all text in your outline
  • Include a page number in the upper right-hand corner of your outline
  • Double-space your outline

Your outline will include three key sections: an introduction, the main body, and a conclusion. In the introduction, you will highlight some key background points and present your thesis. The main body of your paper will detail your main ideas that support your thesis. Finally, your conclusion will briefly reiterate your points and clarify how these ideas support your final position.

APA Outline Format Tips

In addition to following the basic rules for APA format writing, there are some guidelines that you may want to follow as you prepare your outline.

  • Use Roman numerals for your main headings (I, II, III, IV, etc)
  • Subheadings should use capital letters (A, B, C, D)
  • If you need to continue making subheadings within your initial ones, they should use Arabic numerals, then lower case letters, then Arabic numerals inside parentheses

APA Format Outline Example

Here is an example of how you would outline your paper in APA format:

I. Choose a good topic for your paper

A. Develop a strong thesis

B. Research your topic

  1. Organize your research
  2. Choose your main arguments
    1. Consider facts that will help support your thesis
    2. Create a working outline to help organize your writing

II. Begin writing your paper

A. Writing an introduction that summarizes your topic, gives some background information,

and presents your main thesis

B. Write the main body of your paper based on your working outline

  1. Be sure to follow the structure that your instructor has specified
  2. Present your strongest points first
    1. Follow your arguments with research and examples that support your ideas
      1. Organize your ideas logically and in order to strength
      2. Be sure to keep track of your sources
    2. Present and debate possible counterarguments
      1. Present evidence that counters these opposing arguments

III. Write your conclusion

A. Summarize your main points briefly

B. Present ideas for possible future research that might be needed

IV. Update your final outline to reflect your completed draft

A. Be sure to review and edit your paper

Other Formatting Tips to Consider

Your outline should begin on a new page. Additionally, you'll want to check that your word processing program does not automatically insert unwanted text or notations as you create your outline (such as letters, numbers, or bullet points). There should be a way to turn off auto-formatting, although you will need to consult the program's documentation for specific instructions.

Your instructor may require you to specify your thesis statement somewhere in your outline. This might be at the top of your outline or included as a subheading inside of your outline. Check your assignment instructions for guidance.

If you are required to turn in your outline prior to starting your paper, you may also need to include a list of references that you plan to use.

Other Considerations

Since there is no specific APA outline format, there may be some variability in what your outline ultimately looks like. You might choose to format your headings and subheadings as full sentences, for example, or you might choose to use shorter headings that summarize the content. You might also opt for a different organization in terms of lettering and numbering your subheadings.

Consistency is key. Pick an organizational method (or choose the one your instructor requests), and then stick with it.

While it can be helpful to look at online guides for APA outline format, it is important first and foremost to follow the guidelines that your instructor has provided. He or she may have other requirements that you should take note of, including what should be included in your outline and how it should be formatted and structured.

Some instructors may require you to do an outline using a decimal format. This type of outline is structured similarly to a regular outline, but headings use Arabic decimals instead of Roman numbers or letters. Main headings would be 1.0, 1.2, 1.3, for example, while subheadings would be 1.2.1, 1.2.2, 1.2.3.

A Word From Verywell

Understanding the basics of APA format can make writing psychology or other social science papers much easier. While the APA does not have specific rules for writing outlines, you should always follow key rules for margins, fonts, spacing, and page numbering.

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Article Sources

Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  • American Psychological Association. Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (6th ed.). Washington DC: The American Psychological Association; 2010.