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 methodical 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 material that, while fascinating, doesn’t flow in a manner that anyone else can follow.
Your Hierarchy of Words
According to Dictionary.com, an outline is “a general sketch, account, or report, indicating only the main features, as of a book, subject, or project:” That said, I like the description from Grammarly better:
An outline is like a blueprint for writing. Simple outlines list the topics you plan to cover and the order they will go in. Outlines are usually broken up by paragraphs along with their supporting details like statistical data or logical evidence.Grammarly
If creating an outline is new for you, start with a 1-2 sentence description of what your article or post is about. From there, kick off the outline with a very basic format:
- Tell them what you’re going to tell them (Introduction)
- Tell them (Body)
- Tell them what you told them (Conclusion)
The body is where you will take your 1-2 sentence description and start listing what points you need to make in order to support your topic. Feel free to shift those points around; your goal is to make sure each point is logically in the right place to make your case.
Index Cards and Mind Maps
Long, long ago, in a classroom far, far away, my teachers had us using index cards to organize our thoughts 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. Many people have found using tools like Miro to help develop mind maps to be possibly even better than physical card stock. The point is to think about what you want to say and make sure your thoughts are in order (literally) before you start writing.
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.
Thank you for reading my post! Please leave a comment if you found it useful.
If you want to start your own blog or improve your writing, you might be interested in another effort I’m spinning up, The Writer’s Comfort Zone.
(This post was originally published on 7 August 2020 and significantly revised on 30 January 2023.)