If you’re a writer then perhaps you know the term “pantser.” It was new to me. Pantser is a type of writer—one who writes by the seat of his pants. Right? The other type of writer is an outliner. Now that one’s a bit more familiar to me. In my heart I’m an outliner. I like having a plan and making it come alive. I like knowing where I’m going rather than discovering it along the way. And I don’t believe outlines cut off creativity—which is why I’m advocating for outlines and showing you how to write an outline for anything.
What is an outline?
In case you didn’t have to write an outline in school for some reason, this is a formal way of arranging and developing your ideas. Don’t let the word “formal” trip you up—this isn’t rigid, it can be adjusted at any point in your writing. An outline can be broad strokes of big/main ideas or detailed and in-depth, depending on your approach. There’s no right or wrong way to outline, and it can be added to and changed as you go.
Why write an outline?
I sat in a workshop with author Anne Perry (by the way…you should read her bio, I had no idea when I went to the workshop. Wow!) who has written like 100 books or something in her career. It was a fascinating argument for outlining from a prolific author. Here are the benefits of writing an outline. Keep in mind she’s giving advice for book outlining, but I think it can be applied to any type of writing.
- You own the plan
- It helps with plot clarity
- Outlining gives your story structure
- Outlining helps the reasons your characters do things make sense
- You know your character growth/development from the beginning rather than figuring it out as you go
- Outlining prevents your story from sagging in the middle
- Outlining cuts down on the amount of rewrites
What’s the purpose of an outline?
An outline helps you organize your project (article/blog post/book/anything) by helping you check how your ideas connect to each other and discover if anything’s missing. No matter how long your writing project is, outlines help you see the big picture.
How to write an outline for anything
If you’ve read anything I have to say about content strategy, you may find this a bit familiar. The bones are the same but you get a bit more meta when you write an outline.
Here are the broad strokes in five steps.
- Identify your topic
- List your main points
- Structure your argument (put your points in order)
- Add sub-points (make connections between main points)
- Evaluate and adjust as necessary
See? Not so intimidating or limiting. You’re just getting it down on paper and making sure what you have to say makes sense.
A few tips for when you write an outline
Identify your topic. This should be short but still a complete sentence. This will be your anchor throughout the writing process, keeping you on topic.
List your main points. Your main points are the things you want your audience to know after reading your work. All the main points should be a building block towards your thesis.
Structure your argument. This needs to both flow and make sense to your reader. What do they need to understand first? Second? Third? As you get into writing you may need to change the order of your points, this is normal.
Add sub-points. Sub-points go under the main points—makes sense, right? To have a balanced work, the sub-points for each main point should be somewhat equal. If you have seven sub-points for one main point and two for another, it might be time to reconsider your main points as the one with only a couple sub-points may not be a strong enough argument for your overall topic.
Evaluate and adjust as necessary. Read through your outline. Does it flow? Does it make sense? Is it missing anything? Are there gaps in logic? Is there extra stuff?
I hope this is clarifying and will help with your next project.
Remember, outlining is your friend!
- It take the guesswork out of what to write
- It keeps your project on track with relevant content
- Outlining sets you on a strategic plan that moves you forward
- It helps you avoid burning out
- It keeps your project on topic
Thoughts? More tips? Pantser push back? Let me know!