When readers first look at a piece of content it’s easy for them to see if the writing is broken into digestible sections, divided by colorful and well-selected images, or if it was just thrown onto the page to meet a deadline. Though most people stopped using outlines around the 8th grade, outlines remain useful to even the most seasoned professionals.
Here are the essentials for outlining, which should be used regardless of writing style, level of expertise, or deadline considerations. With a little outlining experience the task becomes a huge time saver for writers.
It’s essential that every article have a body filled with strong ideas, thorough research, and clearly explained outcomes. In order to achieve this, outlines remove the guess work and show writers where to place emphasis.
An outline should always include a number of sub-sections that break the content into smaller, more manageable pieces for readers. Natural sub-sections occur in listicles or ‘evolution’ pieces, whereas careful planning is required for other types of content.
Within each section one main concept should be covered (at least), or a related group of concepts. Each section should include at least one strong image. If the piece is research-based, then it should include one source or quote per section (as a support).
Colors & Images
When your article is broken into sections, minimize it so that every page is on one screen. There should be a minimum of one image per page of content. This should be checked during the outlining phase and again during the revision process, to ensure your reader isn’t stuck staring down the barrel of three pages of solid text.
More professional pieces might not need imagery, but instead could use graphs, colored section headers, or lines to add dimension to content. People need these little breaks from intense text to absorb ideas.
Examples – Outlined Articles
Cracked is a site notorious for carefully planned articles. In fact the giant pool of writers must first submit their article framework with only a few sample sections written out. The editors care more about the idea and flow than they do about the writing (initially).
- 7 Amazing Things People Got Just by Asking – In this case, all seven sections were pre-determined, conceptually outlined, and researched before the writer began fleshing out the piece. It’s evident in the consistent pacing and spacing of ideas.
- 17 Ways to Improve Your Blog (Case Study) – This piece was clearly researched before it was written. The author took time to research tips, gather general information, and lay a framework for diffusion of concepts.
Examples – Aimless Articles
Most WordPress bloggers simply login and jot down their personal thoughts in a stream-of-consciousness format. While this works for super-geniuses whose thoughts flow like Thoreau’s Walking, and for those so researched that they don’t need to cite sources as everything has become innate knowledge, it’s not a good idea for most. Sadly, unplanned pieces are easy to pick out amongst the well-organized ones.
- How to Ride a Meme to Create Word of Mouth – This cute piece could have been so much better with clear examples, a little structure, and more development.
- Fruit Fly Traps. No, Seriously. – Trying to be bad in an ironic way, this SEO blog misses the mark and ends up being a stream-of-consciousness that no one would care to read. With a few sub-headers, some idea plot points, and a little segue action, this could be an okay read.
Outlining didn’t die with the 8th grade for the writers who are worth their PayPal transactions; it’s alive and well for those who want to make clear points without boring readers. While outlining doesn’t have to be formulaic and straightforward like it was in junior high, it does need to be thoughtful.