Just write! How many times have you heard the advice to just get right to the task of writing if you want to get anything done? Well, it’s basically true. Butt in chair. Hands on keyboard. Go, go, go!
But, what comes first? A headline? A nut graph? An outline?
I’m a cheerleader for outlines. I think of outlines as roadmaps of structure, formatting, information, stats and talking points that will shape final written pieces. An outline may be brief, or laden with details, sources and quotes.
The length and depth of an outline will vary depending on the type of content you’re producing and your writing style.
In this post, I’m explaining my go-to outline writing process when tackling a new content marketing writing project, blog post for one of my sites and long-form social media content. I’ll share:
- How an Outline Helps You Stay Focused
- Why an Outline Reduces Revision Requests
- The 6 Steps to My Content Writing Outline
How an Outline Helps You Stay Focused
In my experience, creating an outline before digging into those savvy paragraphs and well-placed quotes can save you from organizational frustration and extra desk time later.
Having an outline to reference keeps me focused and moving forward in the writing process. I have fewer writer’s block moments because I have a plan in place for the content I’m creating.
Have you ever jumped right into writing and a few paragraphs in you’re not sure what point you’re trying to make or where the post is going? Yep. Your editors will notice that lack of focus too and send that blog post back to you for editing.
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Why an Outline Reduces Revision Requests
When you take the time to think through what you’re going to write, the copy will be better.
So, what does better mean?
The transitions will make sense. You won’t forget a key point. You’ll have an introduction and a conclusion. You’ll include all the required elements in the first draft, thanks to some reminders you put in your outline (See #5 below!).
Submitting clean, polished copy means fewer back-and-forths with the copyeditors. After all, do you really want to spend your writing time making edits? Although I love learning from my editors, I don’t want to spend time fixing things I could have nailed in the first draft.
The 6 Steps to My Content Writing Outline
Let’s get to it. Here are the nuts and bolts of my outline writing process. I generally follow these six steps.
1. Brainstorm Headline Ideas
Lots of them. I often have six or more working headlines to think about as I write the post. I later choose the one that best fits what I actually wrote. I make sure the headline speaks to the topic and angle of the post.
2. Brainstorm Subheadings
What will each section of the upcoming article be about? Do I need to start with background information or definitions of the topic, then dive into the angle? Or, is it a listicle (list post) and each subheading is an item on the list? I draft quick subheadings during the outline phase and polish them later as I’m writing.
3. Add Sources and Resources
Where am I getting my information from? I like to do a preliminary search for who I’ll interview, which online journals or reputable businesses I want to quote and jot down a reminder of any personal insight I might add (if first-person language is allowed in the post).
4. Write the Lede
I often write the opening paragraph or two just to get my mind ready for writing. I like trying to be engaging, evoke some curiosity and also introduce the topic in a concise way. The lede definitely gets edited later and serves as a nice little starter when it’s time to write. I hate looking at a blinking cursor on a blank page.
5. Review the Editorial Guidelines
At the top of my document, I draft a quick cheat sheet list of style notes I need to remember about the client. Do they prefer or despise the Oxford comma? Are quotes from interviewees in the present or past tense? Do they use title case or sentence case for headlines and subheadings? Getting the style right in the first draft helps me produce clean copy that requires minimal edits.
6. Write the Conclusion
Sometimes this is a simple line or two call-to-action (CTA) that is dictated by the client. I find this to be true in content marketing when I’m crafting posts for specific campaigns or product launches. It’s an easy thing to write, and helps me move forward on the project, so it’s often included in the outlining process.
After I finish the outline, I let it sit.
I like to process what it is I’m going to write. I think — and untangle the tough bits — while I’m walking my dog, making dinner or watching Netflix. Later in the day, or another day, I give the outline a few tweaks and then dive into crafting full sentences.
After the first draft is written, I let the piece sit yet again to create a mental distance from the topic and wording I’ve been reading over and over again. This helps me to more quickly spot areas that need reworking.
I might revise an article two or three times. Then, it’s off to the editors for them to work their magic.
And, that’s it! That’s why and how I draft outlines for my writing projects. Do you also create outlines? Do you have some tips to share? Please comment!
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Note: This blog post was last updated on July 7, 2022.