The Power of the Outline
Congratulations! You’ve been asked to contribute some written material to a newsletter, blog, e-book, or how-to guide. Now that the initial excitement is wearing off (which usually takes me about 1-2 minutes), the existential dread of facing a blank page is setting in.
As an editor, I can usually tell when someone has written their material as a stream of consciousness. Absolutely EVERYTHING seems to end up on the page, in whatever order they think of the content. If they happen to be particularly organized thinkers, they’ll end up with a reasonably organized (if overly wordy) document. If they are more creative thinkers, then they’ll end up with fascinating material that doesn’t quite flow in a manner that anyone else can follow.
The up-side of writing this way is that you’ll fill that blank page pretty darn quick. The down-side is you’ll make your editor (and possibly your reader) cry. If you’d really like to make friends (with your editor) and influence people with your writing, I STRONGLY SUGGEST you start by writing an outline.
Long, long ago, in a classroom far, far away, my teachers had us using index cards to lay out our ideas for our term papers. We’d write out the topics we intended to cover, one per card, then sort them, then re-sort them, then fill in gaps. This actually worked well for most everyone, from the visual thinkers to the verbal thinkers. The visual people could move cards around at will, and the verbal thinkers had the structure of writing things down.
Today, most people likely don’t have a box of blank index cards waiting for their thoughts. You can do the same thing with your keyboard and any document editor. The point is to actually think about what you’re going to say and take the time to make sure the thoughts are in order before you actually start writing prose.
Outlines are an enormous help in making whatever you write consumable by someone else. If you don’t believe me, try this: take something you’ve written in the past without an outline. Use a text-to-speech reader to have the material read to you and listen. Did it flow well? Make sense? Have a good cadence? I suspect you’ll find it has room for improvement. Try this again later when you’ve written something that started with a well-structured outline. I think you’ll be happy with the difference.