How to Write a Good Outline

Today I want to get into my outlining process, as I saw a tweet from my pal Kat Boogaard earlier this week about how important a good outline is.

This triggered my memory and reminded me that while I’ve talked about writing more efficiently, I’ve never really shared a deep dive into the nuts and bolts of my outlining process.

But first, let’s address the elephant in the room. Let’s answer the question that might be hovering in your brain: Do I *really* have to put together an outline before I start writing?

Is it entirely necessary?

I say the answer is yes.

At least for me, outlining has been a tactic that’s helped me manage writing articles and blog posts both large and small in a way that’s both logical and piecemealed so it's more manageable.

Bonus: It helps me get past the blank page with ease.

Now, I wasn’t always an outliner. When I started freelance writing full time about six years ago, I dove into every piece starting at the beginning and just worked my way through as I went. I quickly learned, however, that this approach had some major drawbacks:

  • I missed things. Because I didn’t know the main points I was going to cover beforehand, I’d get to the end of a writing project and find major holes or missing elements in what I’d put together. Then I had to go back and restructure everything to accommodate the new additions. (This was also frustrating for my editors who could’ve spotted these flaws if they’d had an outline to approve before I started writing.)

  • It took longer. Lack of direction meant I was constantly grabbing at straws as I tried to pull together each individual section for a piece. It also meant I spent more time researching, as I was working one section at a time rather than thinking of the larger, overarching story I was trying to tell and how the dots connected big-picture.  

  • It was more daunting. Every new writing assignment felt like a mountain to climb, and the word counts stressed me out. 3,000 words seemed nearly impossible when starting from zero, and it felt like pulling teeth to even get started. It was a huge source of anxiety for me.

Then, I got smart. I started making outlines.

I'm going to talk about my approach from a client work perspective, but keep in mind you can use this for any type of writing.

Getting started 

When I sit down to put together an outline, the process always starts with a writing brief right at the top of the document. This includes a short summary of the post’s objective, important client notes about tone/style/formatting, internal posts or research they want to be referenced in the post, due dates, post length, and any other important info I might need as I work on the assignment.

From there, I start building out my framework (ahem, my outline.)

Step one: Skip the intro, start at section one

The first thing I do when building an outline is to skip past the intro section completely and go right into the first section of the article, which most often begins with a zoomed out/big picture view of the topic I’m writing about.

Sometimes this is a basic definition of a key term and some historical context, sometimes it’s a sort of analyst perspective on the idea that gives a high-level view of the article’s theme.

I add some basic bullet points to this section with that info, along with links to any key stats or news articles I want to reference within this section.

Step two: Explore top-ranking articles + Google’s ‘People also ask’ results

The next step I take is to explore some of the sections within the top-ranking organic search results on the topic I’m writing about. From that research, I make a short list of potential sections to cover, and then further sort that based on what I think is most relevant, helpful, or interesting to include in the piece.

I’ve added an additional step to this stage recently as well, which I just learned about from one of my favorite writers and editors, Tracey Wallace. I do a Google search around the article topic and see which questions come up in the ‘People also ask’ section.

Tracey recommended adding in these questions as section headers or sub-heads, as this is good for SEO and tackles some of the most common questions related to the topic (which Google has so nicely aggregated for you.)

This stage of the outlining process helps me determine some basic direction for the rest of the piece and allows me to put in some generic headers for the sections I’ll research and build out next.

Step three: Research and build out sections

Building out the rest of the outline from this point is fairly easy. With the generic headers and sub-heads for direction, I can dive into creating bullet points for each section with basic points to cover, relevant/new research to cite, and examples to spotlight. Sometimes I do a general brain dump of potential things to include in a section and then sort through that info, leaving behind only the good stuff.

I also use this phase to reach out to my network of expert sources for quotes to include in different sections where it’s relevant. It’s good to have a decent amount of lead time for these efforts because people sometimes need a few days to get back to me with a solid quote.

Step four: Intro and closing

Once I know what I’m going to be talking about in the body of the article, I can more accurately put together a summary for the intro and closing of the piece that brings everything together.

Sometimes by this point, I’ve realized an underlying theme, connected some dots to make a new point about the topic, or discovered a super-relevant story/example that serves as a nice backdrop for the article. Other times I’m just reinforcing the key points.

Either way, I add in a few bullet points for the intro and closing based on the main idea of the article. For the closing, I make sure to include a call to action, asking the reader to do something next.

Step five: Title ideas

Now that I have a really good idea of what I’m going to write about, I put together 2-3 potential title ideas that summarize the article and speak to an interesting, often curiosity-producing theme.

When I can, I try to tie in things like:

  • Hard numbers tied to results

  • Questions

  • Recognizable brand names (when relevant)

  • Outcome-related teasers (Ex: How X did Y)

Getting approval

Once the outline is done, I send it over to the client for review. This step helps ensure we’re both on the same page before I start writing, gives them a chance to add in any important notes, and offers an opportunity for a SEO expert to step in and make any needed adjustments.

This approach saves us both time in the editing phase, which makes both parties very happy. I’d always rather talk through changes in the outline phase rather than re-work (or worse, have to remove!) a whole section that I’ve spent time researching and writing.

Other notes on outlining

One of the important things to note is that the outlining stage is not about perfection or polishing.

I don’t work on writing compelling headers during this phase.
I don’t include full sentences that will go into the finished piece.
I don’t invest time into figuring out how the writing voice will fit in.

Instead, outlining is all about getting a clear direction on where you’re headed with a story so that you’re not staring at a blank page with a huge task staring back at you.

Once you’re done with an outline, you have a clear roadmap and all of the pieces you need to put together an article quickly, with clarity, and in a logical format. Basically, all you have to do is build and polish. The legwork is done, and the rest is a downhill slope.

I hope this has been helpful and gave you some ideas that help speed up your writing process (or at least make it a little less anxiety-producing.)

This article originally appeared in my newsletter, A Cup of Copy. Sign up and get these free tips sent right to your inbox every other Wednesday.