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How to Write an Outline: 4 Ways to Organize Your Thoughts

Updated on
May 22, 2019
Writing Tips
How to Write an Outline: 4 Ways to Organize Your Thoughts

When I was a novice writer, I chafed at the idea of using an outline. I was certain organizing my thoughts in advance would stifle my creativity and make my writing stiff and uninspired. After all, how can serendipity happen if you’ve got everything planned?

But then I started creating content for a living, and I needed to turn out several polished articles every week. I write at least 240,000 words per year to earn my keep. That’s only about half of War and Peace, but it still feels like a lot. I try to write quickly so I’m not still awake toiling away at the keyboard at 1 a.m. with a cup of tea and a couple of graham crackers. (1 a.m. graham cracker calories do seem to count, by the way.)

I discovered that it was taking me a long time to finish my articles because, when my creative mind was unfettered, I had a tendency to ramble in a chaotic stream of consciousness that I would then have to go back and structure in order for it to make sense. Not only that, but I would over-research. I’d wind up with a thousand words before I realized I was only one third of the way through my article. I’d have to go back, refocus, trim down, and sometimes even start over.

And so, I started outlining. And it saved me. Not only from sleep deprivation, but from graham-cracker weight gain. Here’s my step-by-step process. And it works!

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1 Do some reconnaissance reading.

Unless I know my topic inside and out, I start with a little reconnaissance reading. I head to Google and look at what others have written on my topic. I try to think of new and interesting ways to address it. I look for an angle.

The easiest way to find an angle is to look for knowledge gaps in the articles you scan. Let’s use this article as an example. I searched to see what others had written on the topic of how to write an outline. I found a lot on the basics of structure, but not much about how to actually use outlines to improve the organization of your writing. Voila! An angle!

As you’re reading, take notes when you see interesting research or quotes you might want to share. Note the URLs, too, so you can reference them with links in your article. I keep my notes in a Google Doc on the same page where I’m eventually going to create my outline and write my article. Having all the information in one place will allow you to write faster when the time comes.

Here’s a tip: Don’t go too far down the research rabbit hole! Remember, you’re just doing a little reconnaissance reading. It’s easy to over-research, which wastes valuable writing time. Plan to write first, and then add research later.

2 Write down your objective.

Now that you’ve figured out an angle, it’s helpful to write down an objective. What do you want the reader to understand by the end of this article? Put some thought into your objective and see if you can write it in one sentence. My objective for this article was:

At the end of this article, readers will understand why outlines are useful and how to use them to organize their writing.

Everything you write should support your objective. An objective will help you stay focused and prevent you from drifting off on tangents.

Here’s a tip: Academic papers often include a thesis statement. A thesis states a premise or theory that your paper will go on to prove. It’s different from an objective. If you need more specific help with writing a thesis statement, try checking with any university writing center.

3 Create a list of all the main points you want to make.

I often begin this step while I’m doing my recon reading and ideas are popping into my head. This can be a quick brainstorming process. Don’t invest a lot of energy in organizing just yet. You’ll get to that in the next step.

4 Organize, revise, and eliminate.

Now it’s time to organize the list of points. Figure out the structure of your article. Will it work well as numbered how-to steps? A listicle? In standard essay format?

Take a look at the points you’ve jotted down and begin putting them into a logical order. Cross-check each point to make certain that it’s relevant to your objective. If you’ve strayed off the path and included extra information that doesn’t really fit the scope of your article, eliminate it.

Here’s a tip: Save things that don’t make it into your article—information that was extraneous to the article you’re working on now but may be interesting enough to pursue in a separate article some other time. I keep an idea file that I store as a Google Doc. Reference your file when you need a little article inspiration.

You may come across a few things that don’t quite fit into your article as their own sections, but seem important to mention nonetheless. Those elements make great sidebars. In this article, you’ll see them used as tips. Pretty nifty, huh?

As you revise, start putting your outline into a standard format. You don’t have to be too formal about this process, just organize everything into a bulleted or numbered list. (If you want to be traditional, use Roman numerals. I think they make my outlines look fancy.) Include topic segments. Under each topic segment, indent and include the points you’ll discuss in each paragraph. You don’t have to get too granular here—all you’re looking for is enough information to help you remember where you’re going and keep you organized and on track. My outline for this article looked like this:

I. Intro

A. I didn’t used to outline

B. Becoming a professional writer made me change my tune

C. Outlining brings structure to chaos

II. Do some recon reading

A. Look for angle, ways the topic has not been covered

1. Look for knowledge gaps

B. Take notes while you’re reading/record URLs

C. Don’t go too far down the research rabbit hole

III. Make a quick list of the points you want to make

IV. Organize the list into a formal outline

A. Get rid of anything that doesn’t support objective

1. Save extra stuff in a clip file for future use

B. Some extra stuff is worth keeping as tips/sidebars

C. Demonstrate standard outline format

An outline isn’t a prison—it’s there to guide you, not control you. You can take conscious detours, or change things around as you write. Outlines are just guidelines, so they shouldn’t feel restrictive. And yet, you’ll be surprised how the simple act of creating one will give your articles more structure and keep them focused and on-point. You’ll write with more clarity, and you’ll do it all faster and more efficiently. Outlines for the win!

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