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Creating a Content Outline: A Step-by-Step Guide

Creating an outline is one of the most important things a writer can do before drafting content. In the past, I would often dive right into writing without properly planning out my piece.

But doing so nearly always resulted in writer’s block, wasted time, and lower quality work. It was only when I started dedicating time to outlining that I began writing more efficiently.

In this step-by-step, I’ll walk through the immense benefits of content outlining and how you can create an effective outline yourself, ensuring you cover all your bases.

Table of Contents

The Outlining Process Step-By-Step

Now that you know why outlining matters, let’s walk through how to create an effective outline for your next piece of content.

Follow these best steps.

Step 1: Understand Your Goals and Target Audience

Begin your outline by getting clarity on what you aim to accomplish with your content along with who it’s meant for.

Remind yourself of the motivation behind your piece and what you want readers to know, feel, or do upon reading it.

Also, take into account your target reader’s level of knowledge and search intent so you can outline information suited to them.

Having the end goal and audience in mind from the start will inform what content deserves focus in your outline.

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Step 2: Conduct Background Research

Spend some time reviewing any existing content in your space related to your piece as part of your research process.

Study what topics and subtopics are already covered thoroughly by others so you don’t repeat the same information.

Take detailed notes on areas of opportunity where your piece can provide unique value. This research will fuel ideas for the topics your outline needs to include.

Step 3: Brainstorm Sections and Categorize Related Ideas

Armed with initial research, brainstorm every possible section or subtopic your piece may include. Don’t self-edit at this phase; just keep generating ideas.

Once you feel you’ve exhausted all concepts, start grouping related items together into common buckets and assign working header titles for each section.

Look out for opportunities to restructure certain items under sections better suited for them as you’re categorizing.

Step 4: Identify Supporting Details

Once your main sections are defined, it’s time to drill down into the details!

Identify 3-5 key supporting points to include under each section that bring it to life, along with additional facts or explanations for each.

Strong outlines assign roughly equal importance to each section based on word count goals for the full piece. Lean on your research to populate supporting details.

Step 5: Organize Sections Into a Logical Flow

Now, examine your outlined sections and supporting points altogether with a bird’s eye view. Rearrange their layout based on optimal narrative flow for readers.

The idea is for each subsequent topic to build naturally on the previous one.

Also, assess if any overlapping points can be consolidated or if certain ones deserve more weight than others based on impact.

Step 6: Write Concise Summary Sentences for Each Section

With your properly categorized outline in place, get clear by writing 1-2 sentences summarizing the essence of each section.

Doing so will help you refine individual section objectives. It also establishes a perfect starting point for intro paragraphs as you begin drafting later.

Don’t be afraid to tweak working header titles for sections, too, if needed, based on refinements during this step.

Step 7: Review and Refine Your Full Outline

Before considering your outline complete, scrutinize it once more from start to finish. Check for any glaring holes in topics covered or opportunities to streamline points even further.

Show the outline to a colleague or editor to get an outside opinion on areas for improvement. Refine until each section has a clear purpose and transitions easily into surrounding sections.

Choosing the Right Outlining Tool

While outlining can certainly be done with pen and paper, leveraging a digital outlining tool streamlines the process exponentially.

When crafting your own content outline, consider taking advantage of one of the following options.

Mind Mapping Software

Mind mapping tools like MindMeister, MindNode, or Xmind allow you to visually organize ideas using branches, making it easy to see connections between topics and subtopics.

You can then tap to expand or collapse different clusters of thoughts as desired. This style of software is ideal if you’re a highly visual thinker.

Word Processing Outline Format

Microsoft Word, Google Docs, and other word processors contain built-in outline formatting functionality.

Simply choosing the outline option enables you to nest bullets, assign headings, and shift line items seamlessly while retaining the overall structure.

This route makes alphabetizing and reordering a breeze.

Dedicated Outline Programs

For those interested in advanced outlining, dedicated software like Scrivener, Workflowy, and OmniOutliner boasts incredible organizational depth for long-form projects.

Expect a learning curve unlocking their full potential but unmatched customization for complex needs around structuring ideas.

Whichever digital option resonates most, note that paper-based outlining can still complement tools by allowing for quick offline idea capture when inspiration strikes unexpectedly.

Just be sure to transfer items into your core outline document later for one source of truth.

Why Create a Content Outline?

Drafting without an outline tends to be disorganized, lengthy, and missing key information. As Benjamin Franklin wisely said, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”

Here are four key reasons why taking the time to outline first is worth it.

It Helps Organize Your Thoughts

The key benefit of an outline is that it forces you to logically organize your ideas before starting.

As writers, we’ve all had experience with simply sitting down and beginning to write out of order based on whatever thoughts pop into our heads first.

Without a framework set in place ahead of time, it’s easy to leave out key points or go on unnecessary tangents accidentally.

Outlining requires you to structure your main points first for greater cohesion intentionally.

It Creates Logical Flow and Structure

A good content outline will have a narrative flow from beginning to end, touching on all the necessary sub-topics.

Without mapping out how one section leads fluidly to the next ahead of time, your drafted content risks feeling choppy or disconnected.

Effective writers always have an intended story arc for their pieces during the outlining phase.

It Ensures You Cover the Key Points

When brainstorming content topics on the fly while drafting, you’ll inevitably experience moments of “Now, what was that other important point I wanted to discuss?”

Outlining solves this by allowing you to clearly see in advance whether the key topics that need to be covered are accounted for.

Think of your outline as a checklist that helps guarantee no critical information gets overlooked.

It Saves Significant Time Overall

While more time upfront is required to outline thoughtfully, this effort pays off exponentially by saving time on the backend. Content writing is often 80% thinking/outlining and 20% drafting.

Without giving yourself adequate space to think through your piece logically beforehand, you almost always have to substantially delete, rewrite, rearrange, and rework your drafted content.

Just a bit of outlining does wonders for minimizing required edits later.

Turning Your Outline Into Draft Content

You invested the effort to create a strong skeletal foundation for your piece via your outline. Now, it’s time to use that framework to turn out high-quality draft content efficiently.

Here’s how to expand upon your outline properly:

  1. To draft intro paragraphs, leverage your one to two-sentence summary points for each section. Use your summaries nearly verbatim here, as they already encompass each section’s essence perfectly.
  2. Within each section, elaborate on the 3-5 supporting details and facts from your outline significantly. Provide backstories, research, examples, and anecdotes that bring the points to life clearly for readers.
  3. Closely adhere to the structure and sequence represented in your outline as you write. Don’t stray onto tangents not included in your original outline plan.
  4. Pay special attention to smooth paragraph and section transitions so one concept always leads fluidly into the next. Outline clarity here will help.

Once your full piece is drafted, review it carefully alongside your outline. Verify you thoroughly covered all supporting details identified for each section with no gaps. The alignment should be clear.

Adapting Your Process Over Time

When first implementing outlining, follow the exact step-by-step methodology provided earlier for best results.

But after creating multiple outlines, consider tailoring the process to your preferences.

Play to Your Strengths

Do you find yourself breezing through some outline steps but getting bogged down in others? Adapt the workflow to maximize time on stages you excel at and streamline pain points.

Combine Steps

If segregated phases like research and brainstorming feel artificial to you, merge these tasks into one hybrid step instead.

Group the 7 steps into 3-4 larger milestones consisting of related tasks you prefer tackling simultaneously.

Overwrite Rules

Does a linear progression from the first outline phase to the last conflict with your natural creative process? Disregard the prescribed sequence then and move between stages fluidly as ideas strike you.

As long as you ultimately check every task off, order matters less.

Loosen Rigidity

If an exhaustive multi-page outline feels overkill for quicker pieces, downsize to simply bullet-pointing 5-8 key topics and supporting details instead.

Match the thoroughness of effort invested to the complexity of the content.

Leverage Other Systems

Do you swear by a personal task-tracking system, creative ritual, or existing framework outside outlining that enables productivity? By all means, incorporate these into the mix rather than discarding them entirely!

The goal of outlining is a logical content structure. It doesn’t matter how you achieve that for different projects as long as you achieve it.

Customize the core methodology to your unique creative process over time for results that feel less like work and more like your ideal workflow.

Next Steps

The most difficult hurdle is now behind you, namely compiling and organizing your piece’s disparate ideas into one cohesive high-level outline. With your outline tightly framed, you have a content roadmap that makes drafting the actual content simple by comparison.

My advice is to set aside distractions, put your head down, and power through translating your outline into draft form using the tips provided earlier.

Avoid the temptation to deviate “off script” from your outline significantly. If you find an area of your draft content not seamlessly aligning with your original outline, pause to assess where refinements may be needed to improve symmetry.

Investing diligently in this critical outlining phase of the content creation process will serve your drafting efforts immeasurably. Not only will you be able to produce more polished and strategic content right off the bat, but you’ll also substantially limit the required rework downstream.

Through the relatively small effort of content outlining, your writing process forever transforms for the better. Good luck!

Phillip Stemann
Phillip Stemann
I love SEO. It's what I live and breathe. I took a different approach than the average SEO expert. I started as a programmer, transitioned into the technical aspect of SEO, which I've always found interesting, and then focused on content using the right tools, which I'm reviewing on my YouTube channel.

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