Developing a Paper Outline Step-by-Step

The first step can be daunting and frustrating at times:

What should I do?
Will this work?
I can't come up with any ideas!

Here are some tips to jump-start your research:

1.  Generating Ideas for a Topic

It is always a good idea to start any research project with a quick survey of the existing scholarly discussion. Such a survey can start with an already existing but still vague idea or with a basic review of the published scholarly discourse on a writer. Here are some suggestions:

  • Browse through relevant subject encyclopedias
    Example: A Franz Kafka Encyclopedia
    Scan the main entries or the index to discover possible topics.
    Example: Oxford Companion to Shakespeare
    Scan the entry on Othello. It includes stage history, screen history and critical history as well as sources and a synopsis.
    Example: Literature Resource Center
    Search for the name of your writer and find biographical information as well as literary criticism. See entry on Albert Camus from the Dictionary of Literary Biography.
  • Browse the shelves in the Library
    How do you find the relevant call numbers? A subject search for the author in the library's catalog will get you started.
    Subject search:  Kafka, Franz
    Subject search: Camus, Albert
    Subject search: Dostoyevsky, Fyodor - Brother Karamazov
    Subject search: Dostoyevsky, Fyodor
    Subject search: Du Bois, W.E.B.
    Subject search: Shakespeare, William - Othello
    The Library of Congress call number for Kafka criticism is PT2621.A26 Z.... Call numbers starting with PT are shelved on the fourth floor of the Library.
    Note that criticism is always shelved after the literary output of an author.

    Note that much of the information available in books is not available in the Library's catalog. Catalog records of books typically only include the name of the author(s), the title, broad subjects, the name of the publisher, and sometimes the table of contents. Browsing through books on the shelves and taking a closer look at the table of contents or the index of interesting titles can give you ideas for possible topics.
  • Browse through relevant journal indexes
    A quick keyword search for kafka and metamorphosis will bring up all kinds of articles, book chapters, essays and dissertations. Scan over titles and abstracts. Different indexes may emphasize different approaches and topics.
    Scholarly literary criticism:  MLA International Bibliography
    Scholarly humanities literature:  Humanities Full Text
    Scholarly humanities literature:  Essay and General Literature Index

2.  What Makes a Good Topic?

Remember that not all topics are equal. A good topic is a topic that fits the scope of your paper/thesis. Consider how many pages you will need for an in-depth discussion of a particular topic. Remember that you do not have time for original research and that you will have to rely on the research of others. Always discuss your final choice of topic with your teacher.

  • A good topic will ask a specific question. Answering this question will help you to avoid the danger of summarizing or paraphrasing the plot itself. Don't forget that you will need supporting literature to answer your question.
    Example of a well-defined topic:
    "What are the meanings of food in Metamorphosis?"
    This topic is narrow enough to be closely examined in a short paper. Preliminary browsing showed that there is at least one good article in a scholarly journal on the topic. This article has a promising bibliography. Last but not least hunger/food is a recurring theme in Kafka's oeuvre.
  • Example of a not so good topic:
    "The use of metaphors in Kafka's work."
    This topic is too broad for a short paper. What is the specific question?

3.  A First Literature Review

Once you have settled on a topic, go back to the library's catalog and to the journal indexes and search them with a variety of keywords related to your topic. Review the results and select potential source material for your paper. Avoid scholarly articles that use highly specialized vocabulary. Avoid very short articles. They tend to be superficial and unscholarly. Select articles and book chapters that pique your interest and get your creative juices flowing. Save all your choices in an e-mail folder or on your laptop.



Scanning a few lines reveals that the author expects fairly extensive knowledge of Plato, Kant, and Kafka from his readers. And what is eudaimonia anyway? It is always a good idea to avoid sources that you cannot understand.

Here are a few starting points for your literature review:

4.  Reviewing and Locating Cited References

Take your favorite book, article, or book chapter and start reviewing the cited references. Go to library's catalog to locate these items. Remember that you can request items that the Library does not own through interlibrary loan.


  • Remember that journal articles (first example above) can only be located via a journal title search in the library's catalog.
  • Remember that chapter titles and authors (second example above) are usually not in the Library's catalog. Look up the editor or book title in the library's catalog instead.
  • "Diss." stands for dissertation in the third example above. Very few dissertations are captured in the Library's catalog. Go to Databases A-Z on the Library's homepage and look for Dissertations & Theses Full Text.

5.  Widening the Circle: Locating Related Literature

Don't hesitate to revisit the Library's catalog and indexes whenever you think that you can profit from addtional sources during the writing process. Related encyclopedia articles, books and journal articles can give you great ideas for your paper, even though they may not talk about your writer at all.

Example:  subject search for loneliness in literature

6.  Citing Sources

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