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Do you swear that you do a better job writing if you don’t plan and instead, just write in the moment?
You may feel better about your writing experience when you do that, but that doesn’t make the actual writing better. When you are trying to inform or create a structured outcome from your blog post, more planning is better.
Outlining what you’re about to write isn’t done the same way by every writer. Outlining, at its barest, is you knowing ahead of time the general idea of what you’re going to write. It’s the road map, the skeleton, the structure, the foundation—you take your pick.
Either way, if you’re serious about blogging, some form of blog outline process should be in your writing toolbox.
In a previous post, How Planning Your Blog Content Can Help You Get More Done, I laid out an argument for planning in terms of how it can help you save time. However, planning your content with a blog outline can do more than help you save time—it can help you be a better writer. It can help you train your thought process and keep you from growing a wandering thought process. It also helps you get past writer’s block.
The practicing of outlining is beyond mere planning. It’s a conscious devotion to developing an idea, logically and persuasively.
One thing I find very helpful with setting up a basic blog outline, particularly for posts that I need to do a lot of research for, is that I can plug links, snippets, and notes into places on the outline and worry about writing after all the research is done. In this situation, the blog outline helps me know what to look for and what search terms to use.
This is a real time saver. There are few things I dread as a writer than a random and orderless collection of research links and notes. The outline lets me write in orderly piecemeal, one section at a time. When I am done, I can go back and streamline the post as a whole so it doesn’t read so choppy.
Traditional outlines have a pattern:
This doesn’t look like a whole lot of fun. It looks like homework.
Your post isn’t a collection of main stand-alone points (unless it is a list post of that nature), but with supported points that are related and point back to the Big Idea. If you have lots of Big Ideas in one blog post, you will have a disjointed blog post that would be better broken up into separate posts.
What’s a Big Idea?
It’s the thing you base your headline on. You can only have one Big Idea per post. So with outlining, you take your Big Idea (headline), break that Big Idea into a handful of Key Points, and then support those key points.
What’s a Key Point?
A key point is a car without wheels. It needs the rest of the wheels to go anywhere. Together, your key points lead the reader to a conclusion or place of understanding. On their own, they are merely interesting facts or ideas.
So what does a ten-minute blog outline approach look like? Remember, you’re not writing the post in ten minutes, but outlining it so it is easier to write.
The first thing is to approach your blog post not with the actual content at all, but understanding what you want from the post. You might ask yourself:
Since any one topic can go in multiple directions, it’s a good idea to know where you want to end up when you build the structure, or you won’t end up anywhere close.
Depending on what your goal is, there might be specific things you might have to mention. Make a list of them.
For example, it might be specific data, like I mentioned in step one. Perhaps your team has gathered up various data from your website analytics. It’s up to you to decide what context you are going to give this data, but whatever you choose, you have to include it.
“Jim, we’ve seen an increase in traffic ever since we changed our site’s header design. Here’s the data. We think it would make an interesting blog post.”
Or, perhaps you’ve agreed to feature the infographic or some product announcement from another brand. Whatever the case, if you have a specific piece of information that has to be in the post, you need to center the post around it or it will seem awkwardly added on.
Not all blog posts will make use of this step.
If you’re writing a post on a topic and there’s something you want to know but don’t, your reader will feel the same. Make a list of those questions. For example, on a post about using outlines, I might have written:
I often start blog posts on topics that I’m not readily familiar with by listing questions (I’ll talk more about this in a bit). While I may not use the answers to those questions in the final post, it’s a good place to start research and structure, and you’re going to need it when you build the scaffolding of the outline.
Write down as headings, phrases, or singular sentences the things you do know. And by “know”, I mean the things you know as facts or the ideas you’d like to promote whether you have facts to back them up, or it’s merely an approach you want to take to point your reader in a particular direction.
You aren’t writing the post here, so keep it brief. This is only meant to help you structure things for the outline, so avoid writing paragraphs. For example, for this post on blog outlines I might write:
You won’t necessarily use all of it, but write it down. If you use brainstorming to jumpstart your ideas, some of what you discover during that process may be helpful. For example, mind mapping can reveal several possible paths a topic could take. Choose just one path to follow; with outlining, you are wrangling that broad brainstorming swath into a linear path.
Look at the lists you made in steps three, four, and five. It’s time to put order to that mess.
Start at the top, and write down your Big Idea as a placeholder headline. It might be helpful to jot down your end goal from step two.
Then look your lists, and began moving the items on these lists into groupings of related content. For example, I might look at the lists and decide there are groupings for:
I won’t necessarily use all of those sections in the final blog post. It will depend on whether it really fits with the Big Idea and end goal, as well as other restrictions, such as final word count limits. If you’re selling an outlining tool to your reader, for example, they may not really care about the history of outlining and you’ll want to cut that copy so as not to get in the way of copy pointing to a sale.
If you find a grouping that is made up of only one item, get rid of it. It’s going to be too weak to stand on its own, and it clearly doesn’t fit the Big Idea very well because there was nothing else it paired with.
When you do form groupings, you start to see how almost any blog post has the capability of being long-form or short-form, depending on what you decide to do in the next step.
Now that you’ve grouped all of your potential content, give each grouping a heading that summarizes what it’s about.
This isn’t likely to be the heading you use in the final post. It’s mainly meant to be helpful in deciding what stays and what gets cut, and how to write that section.
Start to order your groups in a way that fits logically, flowing down from the Big Idea into your end goal. You might want your blog post to persuade, to sell, or to inform. You may want to present your information in terms of cause-and-effect, problem-and-solution, or compare-and-contrast.
You can do so much with how a post ends up simply by what you do in this step. If you get the arrangement correct, when you write the post, you’ll stay on the path.
Outlining helps writers stay on point and stay focused. If you don’t cut material that doesn’t fit, your outline is loose and will lead you astray.
At this point, you should have a pretty good idea of what your post is going to be about. You have your Big Idea, and you have the sections of copy that will support that big idea topped by a guiding heading.
By arranging the groups earlier, you committed to an angle. Rework the headings to help you, the writer, write copy to that angle. Again, this is likely not the final heading the reader sees, but one that gives you direction. Your final heading might be “The 10-Minute Blog Post Outline System”, but the one you used while writing it might have been “The Basics Of Outlining”.
At this point, you’re ready to write the post. You know where you’re headed, you know where you will end up. You know specifically what you need to research, and where to dump that research back in your draft. You know that your own ideas are where they should be and you don’t have to worry about forgetting to include them.
An outline like this will make much better use of your time.
Outlining should be like cartilage: strong but flexible. It should provide support, but be malleable enough to adjust it to different blog post scenarios.
I don’t use every step every time. But I do use the steps listed above in some form. Most blog posts I write are often assigned topics, and not on what I’m writing from “gut feelings.” This outlining approach where I gather what comes to mind (what I know) and what I need to find out (what I don’t know) has kept me from writer’s block every single time. I don’t always magically feel inspired, but I do know this process will help me do the work.
Essentially, this outlining system helps you embrace the questions you have about something, instead of fearing the fact that you don’t know a topic. And then this method gives you a system to help organize that along with the ideas that pop into your head.
Sometimes, as I’m researching a section, a thought comes to mind that I simply couldn’t have come up with until I started researching. Because I have an outline at work for the post, I simply drop that thought into the section it belongs and come back to it later when I work on that section. This approach is flexible enough to allow for thoughts that occur to you along the way. In other words, you can keep making use of the blog outline until you no longer have to.
Put it to work, you can learn a lot by dissecting the work of others.
Outlining, particularly for long-form blog posts, is a necessary part of your process. It gets a bad rap because we think of outlining as what we learned in school, full of Roman numerals, numbers, and letters. In reality, it’s about organizing information into groupings and finding the best linear arrangement of those groupings.
The end result of creating a blog outline before writing your blog post is making you a better writer, and making your writing better for your reader. The best part? You can do it all with CoSchedule right in our custom editor, or even connecting your Google Docs or Evernote with the workflow you already rock for creating awesome content.
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