Writing A Paper Outline

  1. Writing A Reflection Paper Outline
  2. Outline For Writing A Paper
  3. Writing A History Paper Outline
  4. Writing A Paper Outline Example
Stanford InfoLab Fridaylunch, 1/27/06, with a few (not many) revisions when I reprisedthe talk on 12/4/09, and no revisions for the 10/19/12 revival.The presentation covered:

Running Example

As a running (fictitious!) example, suppose you've designed and runexperiments with a new algorithm for external multipassmerge-sort. Your algorithm reduces the complexity from O(n logn

The outline is the skeleton of your research paper. Simply start by writing down your thesis and the main ideas you wish to present. This will likely change as your research progresses; therefore, do not worry about being too specific in the early stages of writing your outline. Writing an Outline. Writing and Outline. What is an Outline? An outline is a breakdown of the main and supporting ideas in your essay, report, or speech. Think of it as a map of your paper. Why should I write an outline? An outline can help you organize your ideas coherently. You can then write your assignment, using your outline to guide you. Writing an Abstract for Your Research Paper Definition and Purpose of Abstracts An abstract is a short summary of your (published or unpublished) research paper, usually about a paragraph (c. 6-7 sentences, 150-250 words) long. A research paper outline is basically a blueprint for a complete subject. It serves as a mindmap and a plan of action that most students follow throughout the writing process. The following are the benefits of creating a well-structured outline. Organizes all the thoughts and ideas in one place. An outline can create a step-by-step guide that makes the actual writing easier while saving you time. Once you finalize the outline, you can use it to write each paragraph of the paper. You may even be able to use the sentences from the outline to fill in the opening for each paragraph and the supporting details.

) to O(n), under the premise that it's acceptable to havesome bounded 'unsortedness' in the result. You plan to write up theresults for submission to a major conference.

Paper Title

Titles can be long and descriptive:
  • Linear-Time External Multipass Sorting with Approximation Guarantees
or short and sweet:

Writing A Reflection Paper Outline

  • Approximate External Sort
Here's a middle-of-the-road length, plus a cute name that sticks inpeople's minds:
  • Floosh: A Linear-Time Algorithm for Approximate External Sort

The Abstract

State the problem, your approach and solution, and the maincontributions of the paper. Include little if any background andmotivation. Be factual but comprehensive. The material in the abstractshould not be repeated later word for word in the paper.

The Introduction

The Introduction is crucially important. By the time a referee hasfinished the Introduction, they've probably made an initial decisionabout whether to accept or reject the paper -- they'll read the rest ofthe paper looking for evidence to support their decision. A casualreader will continue on if the Introduction captivated them, and willset the paper aside otherwise. Again, the Introduction is cruciallyimportant.

Here is the StanfordInfoLab's patented five-point structure for Introductions. Unlessthere's a good argument against it, the Introduction should consist offive paragraphs answering the following five questions:

  1. What is the problem?
  2. Why is it interesting and important?
  3. Why is it hard? (E.g., why do naive approaches fail?)
  4. Why hasn't it been solved before? (Or, what's wrong withprevious proposed solutions? How does mine differ?)
  5. What are the key components of my approach and results? Also include any specific limitations.
(Exercise: Answer these questions for the multiway sort example.)

Then have a final paragraph or subsection: 'Summary ofContributions'. It should list the major contributions in bullet form,mentioning in which sections they can be found. This material doublesas an outline of the rest of the paper, saving space and eliminatingredundancy.

(Exercise: Write the bullet list for the multiway sort example.)

Related Work

The perennial question: Should related work be covered near thebeginning of the paper or near the end?
  • Beginning, if it can be short yet detailed enough, or ifit's critical to take a strong defensive stance about previous workright away. In this case Related Work can be either a subsection atthe end of the Introduction, or its own Section 2.
  • End, if it can be summarized quickly early on (in theIntroduction or Preliminaries), or if sufficient comparisons requirethe technical content of the paper. In this case Related Work shouldappear just before the Conclusions, possibly in a more general section'Discussion and Related Work'.

The Body

Guideline #1: A clear new important technicalcontribution should have been articulated by the time the readerfinishes page 3 (i.e., a quarter of the way through the paper).

Guideline #2: Every section of the paper shouldtell a story. (Don't, however, fall into the common trap of tellingthe entire story of how you arrived at your results. Just tell thestory of the results themselves.) The story should be linear, keepingthe reader engaged at every step and looking forward to the nextstep. There should be no significant interruptions -- those can go inthe Appendix; see below.

Aside from these guidelines, which apply to every paper, thestructure of the body varies a lot depending on content. Importantcomponents are:

  • Running Example: When possible, use a running examplethroughout the paper. It can be introduced either as a subsection atthe end of the Introduction, or its own Section 2 or 3(depending on Related Work).
  • Preliminaries: This section, which follows theIntroduction and possibly Related Work and/or Running Example, sets upnotation and terminology that is not part of the technicalcontribution. One important function of this section is to delineatematerial that's not original but is needed for the paper. Be concise-- remember Guideline #1.
  • Content: The meat of the paper includes algorithms,system descriptions, new language constructs, analyses, etc. Wheneverpossible use a 'top-down' description: readers should be able to seewhere the material is going, and they should be able to skip ahead andstill get the idea.

Performance Experiments

Writing A Paper OutlineWe could have an entire treatise on this topic alone and I am surelynot the expert. Here are some random thoughts:
  • Many conferences expect experiments.
  • It's easy to do 'hokey' or meaningless experiments, and many papers do.
  • It's easy to craft experiments to show your work in its best light, and most papers do.
  • What should performance experiments measure? Possiblities:
    • Pure running time
    • Sensitivity to important parameters
    • Scalability in various aspects: data size, problem complexity, ..
    • Others?
  • What should performance experiments show? Possibilities:
    • Absolute performance (i.e., it's acceptable/usable)
    • Relative performance to naive approaches
    • Relative performance to previous approaches
    • Relative performance among different proposed approaches
    • Others?

The Conclusions

In general a short summarizing paragraph will do, and under nocircumstances should the paragraph simply repeat material from theAbstract or Introduction. In some cases it's possible to now make theoriginal claims more concrete, e.g., by referring to quantitativeperformance results.

Future Work

This material is important -- part of the value of a paper is showinghow the work sets new research directions. I like bullet listshere. (Actually I like them in general.) A couple of things to keep inmind:
  • If you're actively engaged in follow-up work, say so. E.g.: 'Weare currently extending the algorithm to.. blah blah, and preliminaryresults are encouraging.' This statement serves to mark yourterritory.
  • Conversely, be aware that some researchers look to Future Worksections for research topics. My opinion is that there's nothing wrongwith that -- consider it a compliment.

The Acknowledgements

Don't forget them or you'll have people with hurt feelings.Acknowledge anyone who contributed in any way: through discussions,feedback on drafts, implementation, etc. If in doubt about whether toinclude someone, include them.


Spend the effort to make all citations complete and consistent. Donot just copy random inconsistent BibTex (or other) entriesfrom the web and call it a day. Check over your final bibliographycarefully and make sure every entry looks right.


Appendices should contain detailed proofs and algorithmsonly. Appendices can be crucial for overlength papers, but are stilluseful otherwise. Think of appendices as random-access substantiationof underlying gory details. As a rule of thumb:
  • Appendices should not contain any material necessary forunderstanding the contributions of the paper.
  • Appendices should contain all material that most readers wouldnot be interested in.

Outline For Writing A Paper

Grammar and Small-Scale Presentation Issues

In general everyone writing papers is strongly encouraged to read theshort and very useful The Elements ofStyle by Strunk and White. Here's a random list of petpeeves.
  • Just like a program, all 'variables' (terminology andnotation) in the paper should be defined before being used, and shouldbe defined only once. (Exception: Sometimes after a long hiatus it'suseful to remind the reader of a definition.) Global definitionsshould be grouped into the Preliminaries section; other definitionsshould be given just before their first use.
  • Do not use 'etc.' unless the remaining items are completelyobvious.
    • Acceptable: We shall number the phases 1, 3, 5, 7, etc.
    • Unacceptable: We measure performance factors such as volatility,scalability, etc.

    (Exercise: The above rule is violated at least once inthis document. Find the violations.)

  • Never say 'for various reasons'. (Example: We decided not toconsider the alternative, for various reasons.) Tell the readerthe reasons!
  • Avoid nonreferential use of 'this', 'that', 'these', 'it', andso on (Ullman pet peeve). Requiring explicit identification of what'this' refers to enforces clarity of writing. Here is a typicalexample of nonreferential 'this': Our experiments test severaldifferent environments and the algorithm does well in some but not allof them. This is important because ..

    Best php editor. (Exercise: The above rule is violated at least once inthis document. Find the violations.)

  • Italics are for definitions or quotes, not for emphasis (Griespet peeve). Your writing should be constructed such that context aloneprovides sufficient emphasis.

    (Exercise: The above rule is violated at least once in thisdocument. Find the violations.)

  • People frequently use 'which' versus 'that' incorrectly. 'That'is defining; 'which' is nondefining. Examples of correct use:
    • The algorithms that are easy toimplement all run in linear time.
    • The algorithms, which are easy toimplement, all run in linear time.

Writing A History Paper Outline


  • Always run a spelling checker on your final paper, no excuses.
  • For drafts and technical reports use 11 point font, generousspacing, 1' margins, and single-column format. There's no need totorture your casual readers with the tiny fonts and tight spacing usedin conference proceedings these days.
  • In drafts and final camera-ready, fonts in figures should beapproximately the same font size as used for the text in the body of the paper.
  • Tables, figures, graphs, and algorithms should always beplaced on the top of a page or column, not in the body of the textunless it is very small and fits into the flow of the paper.
  • Every table, figure, graph, or algorithm should appear on thesame page as its first reference, or on the following page (LaTexwilling..).
  • Before final submission or publication of your paper, printit once and take a look -- you might be quite surprised howdifferent it looks on paper from how it looked on your screen (if youeven bothered to look at it after you ran Latex the last time..).

Versions and Distribution

Writing A Paper Outline Example

  • Many papers have a submitted (and later published) conferenceversion, along with a 'full paper' technical report on the web. It'simportant to manage versions carefully, both in content andproliferation. My recommendation is, whenever possible, for the fullpaper to consist of simply the conference version plus appendices. Thefull paper should be the only public one aside from conferenceproceedings, it should be coordinated with latest (final) conferenceversion, and modifications to the full paper should always overwriteall publicly accessible previous versions of it.
  • I believe in putting papers on the web the minute they'refinished. They should be dated and can be referenced as technicalreports -- it's not necessary to have an actual technical reportnumber. Never, ever put up a paper with a conference copyright noticewhen it's only been submitted, and never, ever reference a paper as'submitted to conference X.' You're only asking for embarrassment whenthe paper is finally published in conference Y a year or two later.