How To Keep a Blog Post Outline From Going Off the Rails

Image of Steam Train

Good doggie, nice doggie.

Yes, dogs will often do exactly what you say.

A cat, on the other hand, has a mind (and will) of its own.

In the realm of content creation, the outlines you write for your articles often behave like cats. You try to rein them in, but they just meow, snarl, and end up going their own way. And, if you don’t take control, your outline will drive you crazy.

But you can make your article outline sit up and go “woof” on command — once you understand how to do it.

Let’s look at an example …

How to shave a cat

Let’s say you’re beginning to write an article about cartooning.

The topic of “cartooning” is way too vast and wild for a single article.

So, we need begin to tame this huge topic by taking a step down to a related sub-topic, for this example let’s say, “cartooning faces.” Now we have some control, but still a lot less focus than we’d like.

Should we talk about grumpy, sad, hungry, upset, curious, desperate, tired, or upset cartoon faces — you get the idea, don’t you? We know we’re dealing with faces, but we’re still slightly out of focus.

So let’s step down one level lower … let’s focus on “angry” cartoon faces.

Now you’re more than sure that you can tackle the “angry cartoon faces” topic. You can plainly see that an outline is already starting to form in your head. You can describe what an angry face is, why you need to learn to draw one, when do you avoid it — ah, the outline tumbles out of you like a torrent.

The topic was wild. The sub-topic was somewhat in focus. Ah, the joy of the sub-sub-topic:

  • Topic = Cartooning
  • Sub-topic = Cartooning faces
  • Sub-sub-topic = Cartooning angry faces

Should you always try to shave a cat?

So … should we never outline a topic or sub-topic ever again? Should you always be paring your article outlines down to sub-sub-topics instead?

No.

If you write an article about “pricing,” you will most certainly have to give your client the idea of what your idea of “pricing” is all about. Your idea of pricing will most certainly be different than mine.

If you write on the topic of “talent,” you still have to tell the reader what you mean by “talent.” Again, what you see as talent may be totally different from what I’d see as talent.

So heck, yeah, you’ll have to write those topics and sub-topics, but it won’t bug you as much. You’ll now know where your sub-sub-topics are going. And that gives you an obedient set to work with.

This leaves you free to then allow the nature of the “topic” and “sub-topics” to be a little more cat-like, because your sub-sub-topics will indeed be woofing obediently.

What the heck am I saying?

All this sub-sub-sub might be making your head crazy, so let’s summarise:

  1. The broad topic is wild. It can go anywhere. For example, “cartooning” is a broad topic.
  2. The sub-topic is more obedient, but helps to focus it a bit better, e.g. “cartooning faces.”
  3. The sub-sub-topic is where you hit pay dirt. “Cartooning angry faces” helps you focus with absolute clarity. And the outline tumbles out easily.
  4. The topic and sub-topic are still very useful and not to be disregarded. You still have to use them to get the client to understand your position on the topic, but those work better as content landing pages.
  5. However, now that you have your sub-sub-topics in place, you’ll feel less stress to wander off on a tangent, and can use the topic and sub-topics to get your point across clearly.
  6. In effect, when brainstorming you go from topics to sub-topics and then to sub-sub-topics. When outlining, you may want to start at sub-sub-topics and work your way upward.

Topics and sub-topics tend to meow a lot, they tend to do their own thing.

But if you go through the steps of brainstorming the topics, then sub-topics and finally sub-sub-topics, you’ll find that all three of them will become more dog-like, much more obedient to your content creation goals.

Good doggie.

Nice doggie.

Woof, woof, woof!

About the Author: Sean D'Souza offers a great free report on 'Why Headlines Fail' when you subscribe to his Psychotactics Newsletter. Be sure to check out his blog, too.

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Comments

  1. I’m a college speech instructor and understand outlining very well. I teach it. However, I never outline my blog posts. It seems like an extra step to me. It’s intuitive to me to pare a topic down to a specific point.

    • I fly by the seat of my pants with blog posts, too, because the process intuitive, but I’ve often gone down a path where I finally have to admit it is going nowhere … and so abandon it. Or I tackle a topic and it gets to big and then have to split it up.

  2. I try to “shave” my topics, but most of the time while writing a topic, I get more and more ideas and then suddenly the blogpost is going “like a cat”. But most of the time I then don’t take the effort anymore to “shave” and shape the article again.

  3. First of all, I’m not fond of cats, just saying. But you’ve got a good point by saying that bloggers have to learn to shave the cat (figuratively, wouldn’t mind it to be literal). Many times, I’ve experienced writing a very broad topic and trying to figure out the best way to explain it. Thus leading me to create my sub topics and all that. While it may be cumbersome for bloggers to do this, as they believe that blogging should be very free flowing or less formal, we still have to think of our audience. Just put yourself in their shoes, how would you prefer reading a broad topic? I’m sure we’d all agree that we’d like it better shaved and broken down too.

    • Exactly. Just because we can write, doesn’t mean we write to hold the audience attention. The best writers, speakers, artists, animators—they’re always chopping off extra bits to get right down to the essence.

      • hey Sean,

        Good point!

        I feel like you want us to be the Michelangelo Buonarroti of our craft :)

        He used to envision his character (David for example) in the marble and free him away …

  4. I don’t outline but write down questions that I want to answer and then turn them into a blog.

  5. Haha this is just awesome. Love the dog/cat analogy. Really helpful tips, too! I have definitely found that if I try to outline from a topic or subtopic, I go all over the place and my article never turns out as good.

    • A lot of people go all over the place, Jessica. They’re usually unaware of the “crime”. And they often believe themselves to be great writers. :)

      Writing well is not easy. It takes time and systems.

      • I couldn’t agree with you more! When my writing interns ask me how to create better blog posts, the one thing I always emphasize is that they slow down and take time to think through the concept they are building. Most people rely very heavily of flow of consciousness, which is great for impromptu speaking; but a writer has a greater responsibility to present well considered ideas.

  6. I used to hate outlining because I thought it made me less creative. But nothing is less creative than not getting my copy out the door.

    Now that I work at an agency I outline all of the time. I have to flagellate my wily mind to stick to the script, but it’s worth it.

    Outlining is the best way to create high quality writing when deadlines matter.

    • It’s a very different game when you’re producing disciplined, purposeful content on a deadline, ain’t it?

      Among other things, a quick outline is the absolute best way to preserve ideas for future posts, I’ve found. Instead of making a note about an idea, spend a few minutes to flesh out a very simple outline. You’ll get a better finished product and less brain damage when it’s time to get something produced.

  7. Blogging has been described as ‘brain farting’. But I guess that with some exercise you could learn to whistle a tune.

    • I guess it depends on your goals. :) If you’re blogging for self-expression, fart away. If you’re trying to build and persuade an audience, some discipline does come in handy.

    • I haven’t heard that one before. But I know this: Many of those bloggers end up writing a book or document of some kind. Or they end up on stage speaking at an event.

      And the audience has to hold their noses as they deal with the “perfume”. If you really want to be good at something, you learn a craft. The Internet has allowed a lot of “farters” to exist.

      I sometimes feel like I’ve gone to a fancy dinner and they are, all in their bare feet, beer and sweatshirts. And farting.

      Thanks, but no thanks.
      Learn your craft.

  8. I go for fluffy most of the time and then cut the fluff. when getting rid of the fluff I normally have leftovers for another post. I am not fond of cats but sometimes a cat is necessary so you can learn how to tame the dog.

    I knew I was in good hands. Thanks again guys.

  9. Funny, I’ve tried this, but it just doesn’t work for me. I can drill-down to a specific topic, but my creative path is often meandering and outlines don’t work so well. Heck, creativity is meandering and sometimes painful, but meandering is usually the only way I seem to get things done.

    You just have to rein it all in with a little discipline in the end, is all ;)

    I guess it’s more of an organic process AND I always write headlines last. My first headline is never my final headline.

    With all that being said, I love this post and the play on obedient dog and crafty cat.

    I also love Ivan’s comment. Brain Farting, indeed … ;) I brain fart all day long.

  10. I have problems with outlining also. I can’t seem to do it before I write something–only afterwards. However, I love mind-mapping. It lets you get the main topic, various sub-topics, and sub-sub-topics ideas on paper as a start.

    Then it’s easy to add, discard or combine sub-topics at any point. There are mind-mapping computer programs out there, but I like using just paper and pencil. And an eraser.

  11. Well, I have never shaved a cat, but I bathed a cat once and never want to do it again. I still have scars from that.

    I use outlining quite a bit. Besides narrowing down the topic, I usually use a format of problem, root cause, solution, implementation. Works pretty good for me.

  12. I am laughing and nodding in agreement. Good post!

  13. Over the past year, I’ve had somewhat of an epiphany about outlining—they’re not just for writing anymore.

    You can almost manage every point of thought capture with an outline, but in order to do it efficiently, you need to use a tool that actually specializes in outlining.

    This may seem spammy, my apologies, but I share these links with the best of intentions. They’re both worth checking out.

    Disclaimer: If you click this link, I get a referral credit. The intro video is what opened my mind up to the bigger picture of outlining.
    https://workflowy.com/?ref=88f1ca6

    This link is the latest project from the father of blogging himself, Dave Winer. Dave has been a long-time proponent of outliners as a writing platform.
    http://fargo.io

  14. I personally am not a huge fan of outlines because I feel that if you lay everything out your writing becomes more stagnant and confined.

    I prefer more to create a general structure in my mind and mold and shape it as I go.

    But none the less everybody is different and this is probably very helpful to some people. Great Post!

  15. If you look at the world of professionals, almost no job is done without outlining. Animators do sketches, movies do storyboards and so on.

    If you have millions of dollars at stake, you can’t afford to use the method that most amateurs use—namely hit and miss.

    • Love the word ‘sketch’. As an urban sketcher I draw in the street. Studying a hand, a pose, perspective, … And whilst doing that I receive comments on the spot by real people. I treat my blog posts the same way. To share a viewpoint, test a tone of voice, … in the real world. With all these sketches and posts in hand I start working on a finished piece (with outline!) Controversy: no client of mine ever commissioned a blogpost! They want a crafted essay, landing page, ebook, year report, or another piece of journalism. What have you on this as experience?

      Great thread here, by the way!

  16. Thanks for the article, Sean, I really enjoyed reading it. The cat and dog analogies resonated with me.

    You make sense here, but outlining is not for everybody.

    A lot of people do just fine without outlining: they may choose instead to ply their trade through the seat of their pants. Some call it following your bliss. Or pursuing your intuition, wherever that may lead you.

    However, trusting your gut can be a slippery slope.

    You never know where you are going to end up and it may not be in a place that is to your liking.

    You can also go off on tangents instead of returning to the point. You lose focus. So, it works both ways.

    The important thing is to be able to rein in your impulses. Otherwise, you will go astray. And that is no fun, because you end up like a cloud, adrift in a fantasy world. And lose your touch with reality. Cheers.

    • Yes, it’s not for everyone, because it requires a discipline. I’ve worked in some big ad agencies when I was younger and the copywriters would do something “creative”.

      And sometimes it worked amazingly well.

      But sometimes is not a guarantee. Outlining is a skill that needs to be learned just like walking, talking, writing etc. We all say we write from the seat of our pants, but if we used any ol’ grammar, any kind of spelling, our communication would be a mess.

      A scientific method keeps the exoskeleton in place. What you wear as an embellishment (e.g. earrings) is what you’d call style. But the core needs to be the core. This is why so many people seem to think they’re writers, but are merely people that put words together. There’s no structure.

  17. I also feel like the more sub-sub-topics you focus on the more valuable it becomes for your audience. People prefer hard and fast facts, not general fluff. When you get into the nitty gritty you provide something for your readers to latch on to. So not only does your blog post not run away with itself you actually help pull in your readers.

  18. Great post here. You’re absolutely right that it’s in the “shaving” that you attain focus. Too many writers are tempted to tackle these grandiose topics like world peace or losing weight. You need a better plan than that. Give people something unique or original as you drill down.

    • Too many writers aren’t disciplined enough. And they hide behind being “creative”. As I mentioned in an earlier comment, copywriters in agencies have been doing that for years and blowing up the hard-earned money of many of their clients.

      If you’re not serious about your craft, you’ll make excuses to hide the shoddiness and rough edges of your work.

  19. Being a first timer in the blogosphere, I guess I have lot to learn. Thanks for the writing tips, at lest this is going to give readers more understanding.

    Its very explanatory, so I’ve been missing something since all these while. I’m not the type of guy that uses sub-sub topic but I think its high time I putit to effect as it’ll help me.

  20. I always outline with a pen and notepad first – get headers sorted.

    If i just go rushing into it, it always just turns into a mess and never has any outline. Can’t truly think clearly it seems when I’ve got a screen infront of me.

  21. You had our attention at the word ‘cats’. In all seriousness this was a very useful blog post. We host a large amount of Marketing Agency guest bloggers on our site. All of them have wonderful ideas for blogs but are unsure of how to angle the article. We provide some input for guidance but generally just talking it out can help them to slowly ‘shave the cat’ down to the message they really want to communicate. We would advise saying your blog idea out loud in just two sentences.

  22. Jonathan Ashford :

    You define this constant struggle precisely and amusingly. I always lose control a bit but use editing as the time when I can look at the mess and start snipping the loose threads. And sometimes those threads are the beginnings of new articles.