Crafting the direction and order of ideas mid-writing can be confusing and lead to missing information, random interjections, and illogical presentation. A thoughtful outline will help ensure your writing is organized, thorough, and achieves its purpose. An outline is a plan for your writing, typically consisting of the work’s intended goal and audience, an ordered list of relevant topics, and points to support these topics. Outlines define the structure of your article, essay, or other modes of communication and can remind you of the essential elements of that writing style.
Outlines can reduce revisions and make your writing process more efficient. By providing a clear path, outlines allow you to start writing any section instead of beginning with the introduction. Furthermore, outlining your topic and key points should provide accurate keywords and alt-text for SEO purposes. Outlines can also illuminate elements of your argument that need more research or tangents that don’t belong in the writing. In addition to organizing your thoughts, outlines allow you to collaborate, share plans, and gain consensus on your ideas with coworkers, clients, or supervisors before spending time crafting sentences.
Here are some best practices for developing an outline:
- Determine your writing format. Before starting your outline, make sure you’ve established the final form your writing will take. The choice of topics and order of ideas differ based on the format. A news article begins with the critical information and then fills in details, a persuasive essay adds new arguments throughout the paper, and a case study may prioritize chronological storytelling.
- Determine your topic and express it in a single sentence. Clearly define your topic before you start outlining, addressing the who/what/where/when/why/how of your article. For example, my sentence for this blog post was, “Explain what an outline is, why it’s important, and how to best outline an article to help improve your writing.” If you don’t have enough information about your subject to summarize it, do more research before you start outlining.
- Develop a list of relevant ideas. Based on this summary, start brainstorming ideas related to your sentence that directly address the goals of your work. For instance, some topics for this blog included “explanation of an outline,” “benefits of an outline,” “best practices for outlining,” and “using an outline.” You may not use all topics you identify at this stage, so think broadly.
- Narrow and group your ideas. Once you have a variety of themes that explore and support your topic, organize those ideas and eliminate tangents. Ideas could be arranged chronologically, logically, in order of or reverse order of importance, or randomly. Now is the time to determine the overall shape of ideas.
- Add supporting information and research. With a general order of concepts, add information that proves and reinforces your themes. This information can include logical statements, quotes, cited facts, and linked materials. Consider also adding transitions and other connections between topics to make drafting easier.
- Review and adjust your outline. If you notice that important themes don’t have at least two supporting points or reveal other logical gaps, do additional research, or re-arrange your outline.
Once you’ve developed your outline, you can use multiple strategies to transform it into finished written work. Drafting the body of the article first before the introduction and conclusion can lead to a more cohesive piece. You can also write your topic, themes, and supporting information in complete sentences, then simply remove bullets and other formatting for a bare-bones draft.
Most importantly, use your writing expertise to develop a piece of work that addresses your goals. If your outline doesn’t match your final product, that’s not necessarily a problem. However, the differences between your outline and finished work should be mindful choices made in the writing process, not accidents. To revise your draft, consider reverse outlining, a technique where you construct an outline based on the main topic of each paragraph. Seeing an outline of your drafted work can help you view the structure of your work and confirm that your writing meets your goals.
Outlines are a vital step in the writing process. They can improve your writing efficiency and your ability to communicate logically. Your outline’s format barely matters; it’s most important to outline in the way that helps you write. As long as you thoughtfully state your intended topic, intentionally structure the order of ideas, and include supporting information, your outline can improve your writing.