How to Write an Outline in APA Format

Writing a psychology paper can be an overwhelming task for students. From picking a good topic to finding high-quality sources to cite, each step in the process comes with its own challenges.

Formatting your paper in APA style can also be challenging, especially if you have never used the format before. Luckily, there are strategies you can use to make writing a psychology paper using APA format easier—one of which is creating an outline.

Young psychology student sitting at laptop writing an outline in APA style
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What Is APA Format?

APA format is the official style of the American Psychological Association (APA). It can be used to style papers written for university courses as well as in professional psychology publications.

Formatting dictates how papers are styled, which includes organizational structure, page layout, and how information is presented.

Learning the basics of APA format is necessary to write effective psychology papers and reports. However, psychology is not the only field of study that relies on APA format. Other social science disciplines such as education, nursing, economics, and sociology also use APA format.

A strong paper starts with a solid outline. Creating an outline is the first step you should take as you begin to research, organize, and write your paper.

Unless your instructor specifically requires outlines, you usually will not need to turn yours in with your final paper, but that doesn't mean you should skip the step. Developing an outline can help you organize your writing and ensures that you effectively communicate your paper's main points and arguments.

The Basics of APA Format

There is no specific APA format for creating an outline, which means the final form that your outline takes will depend on what your instructor requires as well as your personal preferences. While the official APA publication manual does not provide specific guidance for outline preparation, it does specify general rules to keep in mind as you are writing.

For example, according to APA style, papers need to be written in a widely available font. Traditionally, Times New Roman in 12-point font is used, but other legible serif and sans serif fonts like Arial or Georgia in 11-point fonts are also acceptable. Your paper's text should be double-spaced.

Each page should have 1-inch margins on all sides (top, bottom, left, and right), and you need to include a page number in the upper right corner of each page.

Structure

Your outline will include three key sections: an introduction, the main body, and a conclusion.

  • Introduction: Highlights key background points and presents your thesis
  • Body: Details the main ideas that support your thesis
  • Conclusion: Briefly reiterates your main points and clarifies how these ideas support your final position

Headings and Subheadings

In addition to following the basic rules for APA format writing, there are also specific guidelines for using headings and subheadings you will want to follow as you create your outline.

  • Main headings: Use Roman numerals (I, II, III, IV)
  • Subheadings: Use capital letters (A, B, C, D)

If you need additional subheadings within the initial capitalized letter subheadings, start with Arabic numerals (1, 2, 3), then lower case letters (a, b, c), then Arabic numerals inside parentheses [(1), (2), (3)]

Review Your Instructor's Requirements

Before you start thinking about different methods of organization, review what your instructor has provided for guidance. They may have specific requirements for what to include in your outline, as well as how it needs to be structured and formatted.

Some instructors require outlines to use decimal format. This structure uses Arabic decimals instead of Roman numerals or letters. For example, the main headings in an outline using decimal format would be 1.0, 1.2, 1.3, while the subheadings would be 1.2.1, 1.2.2, 1.2.3, and so on.

Consider Your Preferences

After you have reviewed your instructor's requirements, you can consider your own preferences for organizing your outline. For example, you could choose to format your headings and subheadings as full sentences or use shorter headings that summarize the content. You can also use different approaches to organizing the lettering and numbering in your outline's subheadings.

Whether you are creating your outline according to your instructor's guidelines or following your own organizational preferences, the most important thing is that you are consistent.

Formatting Tips

Your outline should begin on a new page. Before you start writing, check that your word processor does not automatically insert unwanted text or notations (such as letters, numbers, or bullet points) as you type. If it does, you should have the option of turning off auto-formatting.

Your instructor may require you to specify your thesis statement in your outline. For example, it may be presented at the top of your outline or included as a subheading. Be sure to review your assignment instructions to find out where your thesis should be placed.

If you are required to turn in your outline before you begin working on your paper, keep in mind that you may also need to include a list of references that you plan to use. Here is a step-by-step example of how to outline a paper using APA format.

Choose Your Topic

The topic you choose should be one that you can build and develop a compelling paper around. Start by developing a strong thesis for your paper that is based on the topic you've chosen, then begin to research the topic. Here are some key points to keep in mind as you are researching:

  • Choose your main arguments
  • Keep your research organized
  • Look for facts that support your thesis
  • Create a working outline to organize your paper

Example

Here's what step one would look like formatting according to APA style:

I. Choose a good topic for your paper

A. Develop a strong thesis

B. Research your topic

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

Start Writing

Begin with an introduction that summarizes your topic, provides some background information, and presents your main thesis. Next, write the main body of your paper based on your working outline. As you write, there are a few important points to keep in mind:

  • Follow the structure that your instructor specifies
  • Present your strongest points first
  • Support your arguments with research and examples
  • Organize your ideas logically and in order of strength
  • Keep track of your sources
  • Present and debate possible counterarguments, and provide evidence that counters opposing arguments

Example

Here's what the second step would look like formatted with APA style:

II. Begin writing your paper

A. Write 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
    Present your strongest points first
    Follow your arguments with research and examples that support your ideas
  2. Organize your ideas logically and in order of strength
  3. Be sure to keep track of your sources
    Present and debate possible counterarguments
    Present evidence that counters these opposing arguments

Write Your Conclusion

In your conclusion, briefly summarize the main points of your paper and present possible avenues or topics for future research that might be needed.

Example

Here's what the third step would look like formatted with APA style:

III. Write your conclusion

A. Summarize your main points briefly

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

Update Your Final Outline

The final version of your outline should reflect your completed draft. At this stage, be sure to carefully review and edit your paper. During the final step you will update your final outline to reflect your completed draft. Also, be sure to review and edit your paper

Example

Here's what your completed outline would look like in APA format:

I. Choose a good topic for your paper

A. Develop a strong thesis

B. Research your topic

    1. Organize your research
      Choose your main arguments
      Consider facts that will help support your thesis
  1. 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
      Present your strongest points first
      Follow your arguments with research and examples that support your ideas
    2. Organize your ideas logically and in order of strength
    3. Be sure to keep track of your sources
      Present and debate possible counterarguments
      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

A Word From Verywell

Understanding the basics of APA format makes writing papers that require it much easier. While APA format does not provide specific rules for writing outlines, you can still create a strong roadmap for your paper using general APA style guidance, your instructor's requirements, and your own personal organizational preferences.

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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 process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. About APA Style. American Psychological Association. Updated 2020.

  2. APA Style: Font. American Psychological Association (APA). Updated 2020.

  3. APA Style: Page Header. American Psychological Association (APA). Updated 2020.

  4. Types of Outlines and Samples. Purdue University Online Writing Lab. Updated 2020.

  5. Writing Center: Outlines. Mississippi College. Updated March 30, 2020.

Additional Reading