Follow Your MAP to
Greater Writing Productivity

image of hand drawing a diagram

When you hear the word “outline,” do you give a little shudder?

You’re not alone. For so many of us, the outline evokes painful memories of five-paragraph essays, clumsy thesis statements, and prayers for snow days.

Outlines tend to make writers, especially younger ones, feel confined and boxed in, forced to quell their creativity for the sake of structure.

It’s time to let those middle school nightmares go. An outline can be so much more than where Roman numerals go to die.

In fact, when you learn the right approach, an outline can actually make you a better writer. I know it sounds hard to believe, but keep reading and I’ll explain what I mean.

MAP it out

Effective writing has structure, no matter what kind of writing you’re doing.

An outline is just a way of making that structure visible. A well-crafted outline makes you a more productive writer when it’s time to put pen to page.

It’s also the foundation of your MAP.

Sorry for the caps … I’m not yelling. It’s actually an acronym that stands for:

  • Medium
  • Audience
  • Purpose

Most forms of media writing (and yes, a blog post counts) can be boiled down to these three basic elements. The scope and nature of a writing project can change, sometimes dramatically, if one of those elements shifts.

Say, for example, you want to create a news release about your company’s latest innovation. The way you present and organize information for that project will be different than if you were going to write an article for a respected industry publication instead — even if you’re writing about the same innovation.

In that case, two elements — audience and purpose — shift. That means the entire article has to change its focus. With a workable outline, you can make that change much more easily.

A fluid outline is crucial to knowing where you are on the MAP. Writers who work from a rock-solid outline tend to save time and energy by avoiding the hassles of heavy edits and rewrites. That foundation also makes it easier to change when one of the elements that make up your MAP changes.

Here are a few ways to help improve the process:

1. Start with a brainstorm

It’s difficult, if not downright impossible, to simply sit down and write that speech or company memo from start to finish. It can also prove hazardous to those who cherish coherent and logical writing.

Don’t come in cold and expect to start pounding out paragraphs effortlessly. In this regard, not much has changed since that persuasive essay you had to write in high school on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Embrace the “pre-outline outline” methods that favor ideas over organization. Brainstorming, mind mapping, or free-associating words and phrases on your given topic can help you think of innovative new ways to approach your material.

From that freeform mish-mash of ideas, you can start to refine and craft your outline.

2. Develop a core message

This is the calm after the brain storm. Forming a central message or concept is key to a successful piece of writing. This message and its tentacles will weave throughout the piece, carrying readers through all corners on a wave of cohesion and comprehension.

If you can’t boil down your writing project to a single sentence, you probably need to sit down and think about it some more.

This is the central nervous system of your outline. Everything is built to support and strengthen this concept. Scour those pre-outline outlines and cull all the information you can find that helps flesh out and develop your core message.

Every new concept, every thread within the body of your writing project needs to come back to this idea. A writer who asks or expects readers to connect the dots themselves isn’t writing effectively.

3. Refer to your MAP

Once it’s finally time to use your outline to start writing, be sure to refer to your MAP.

What’s the medium? Is this a blog post or an article or a business communication? And how should your style change to accommodate that?

Who’s the audience? Who, specifically, are you talking to? What specific language do they use? Do they want a formal or an informal approach? Would they consider some kinds of writing to be completely inappropriate? Mentally fix a single member of your audience in your mind and write as though you were speaking directly to her.

What’s your purpose? Are you trying to persuade your reader to take a new point of view? Are you asking her to invest time or money or energy in a project? Do you have a call to action?

Make sure you know what the point of your writing is. You’ll need to remember to drive that purpose home in several places, but particularly at the end. If your audience doesn’t know the purpose of the writing, it’s going to be difficult for them to do what you want them to do — even if they like what you have to say.

4. Give yourself some deadlines

Build staggered deadlines into your outline. Tweak them as needed, but don’t let yourself wander around your writing project without specific deadlines. This is a simple productivity tool that can help you balance all the projects on your to-do list.

The degree of flexibility may shift considerably if you’re writing a book as opposed to a time-sensitive document like a speech or report. Most writers work better with deadlines, and these built-in markers can help shepherd you through a more efficient writing process.

About the Author: Chris Birk is director of content and communications for VA Mortgage, the nation’s number one dedicated VA lender, and Growth Partner, a unique firm that provides angel investment and online marketing expertise to emerging companies. He blogs at Write Short Live Long.

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Reader Comments (37)

  1. says

    Taking a little time to plan out your writing is great. Specifically in MAP where you think about what your core audience wants/desire.

    They should absolutely be thought of and catered to for this process because they are really the only ones who matter.

  2. says

    From my experience, what I can say is starting to write is the most difficult part. It’s even more difficult than writing itself. Once I start, I can just keep going and reach the end.

    I don’t do outlining too often, though. I think I should try this trick to improve my writing. Thanks Chris.

  3. says

    This sort of approach lends it self well to mind mapping software — you can really visualize the MAP approach that you are describing that way.


  4. says

    @Sajib: I feel your pain. That first graf is always the toughest for me. And I’ve never been one of those folks who can start writing somewhere in the middle and find my way to an opening paragraph later down the road.

    @Mark: You’re totally right. It’s amazing how seeing those ideas and snippets in space can kick-start the process.

  5. says

    Great stuff! I am a big outliner. It fits my linear nature better than mindmaps or free-form brainstorming. Once I have the outline in place, the piece often writes itself. If it’s a longer piece of writing, like an article, I will even assign word counts to the different section.

    I really like how you encourage people to think of the call to action before they even start writing. So often, we get to the end and don’t know why we wrote it in the first place!

    Thanks for the great content.

  6. says

    I was terrible at outlines in school. I hated the feeling of being locked into something once it was down on paper.
    Now I find they do help. Mostly, they help me keep the topic under control and from getting too large.

  7. says

    Though I didn’t necessarily ‘know’ I had writing process I can testify that 1 & 2 are critically important. With 2 I tend to focus on “What is the end result I want to achieve?” Like most people I could probably do with more 3, but I guess that’s why you wrote this. And as for 4, nothing like a last minute deadline! Thanks for the synopsis.

    PS – helps to write on airplanes far above the crowd.

  8. says

    “Mentally fix a single member of your audience in your mind and write as though you were speaking directly to her.”

    Love that.

    Personally, that the most important one and it’s also super easy to forget. Writing like you’re talking at someone is simple. Conversational writing is the challenge.

  9. says

    I like the mind mapping process, it is easier to brainstorm there than in an outline. I feel restricted when I use an outline. I know it is foolish, but I get the feeling that once it is outlined I have to go with it. Logically I know that I wrote the outline and I can change it if I desire. Emotionally, though, I feel that once I have spent the time on the outline I have to stick with it.
    I recently wrote an article about time=money and this is one place where taking the time to map out the articles can bring in more money. Not to mention making the whole writing process easier. Taking a little time to map out the purpose and audience you are writing for can save you time later as you write. I love deadlines. If I do not already have a deadline on a writing project, I create one for myself. Timer apps are very useful for this.

  10. says

    @Lain: Many thanks. I love the idea of keeping to a strict word count for outline sections. I’m totally stealing that idea.

    @Fiona: If working in newspapers taught me one thing, it’s that I need a looming deadline. Finding a great writing environment can also be challenging, so I’m glad the friendly skies work well for you.

    @Paul. Thanks. I teach college students, and one of my constant mantras is that I’ll never yell at them if the first two words of anything they write is a person’s full name. Focusing on a specific person helps force them to be specific and precise. I think the same is true when considering your audience.

  11. says

    Hi Chris,

    I am the type who can sit down and write something from start to finish, but as you mentioned, doing so is not always the right way especially because I tend to get off topic (or write 3 paragraphs that I end up scrapping). So lately, I’ve turned to using outlines as you described. I’ve found that thinking through the entire thing and creating headlines for sections as I brainstorm keeps me on target and produces a better post.

    I’ll have to start adding deadlines. Deadlines give me hives. :)


  12. says

    To your “2. Develop Core Message” point. Keep working and reworking your core message until it fits on a cocktail napkin, back of a business card, or as a Twitter post. Brevity increases idea “stickiness.”

    Way back when computer hardware and speed was all the rage, a PC sales guy sold me on a desktop with a capable though less-dynamic CPU. “Less cache means more cash in your pocket,” he said. Ten years later, I still remember it. Now THAT’s a tagline that sticks.

  13. says

    I can see how this would make the writing SO much more organized, easy to read, follow, and respond to.

    In school I wouldn’t have imagined writing a paper without an outline first. It only makes sense that by using your MAP technique, it’ll improve my blogging as well.

    I’m going to save this and really work at applying it.

    Thank you!


  14. says

    Thanks for showing the details. This is good for every field.

    In special education we use a similar process called “Maps” for building person centered planning to try and give people with disabilities better connections to their neighbors and friends. It always stricks me when I see this in business.

    Wonder, Chicken and Egg…what came first?

    • says

      I would just venture a guess that there are about 1000 different uses of MAP as an acronym for different processes. :) It’s such a perfect word to create an acronym around!

  15. says

    @Paul. Ditto.

    And while this is true for each medium, I find this particularly true of blogs.

    Blogs have such a low barrier to entry that is so easy to forget your audience.

  16. says

    I think my writing process is similar. For me, it starts with a topic or a phrase. Then, subtopics and keywords follow. The brainstorming is the easiest part for me. It can even wake me up!

    Then, I make a sketchy outline, so I remember all the ideas I want to include. I’d like to think of my purpose before I start writing; however it doesn’t always present itself until after I’ve found something interesting to get me started: quote, stat, etc.

    I try to get to my main point quickly, so that everything supports it. And, I always give myself deadlines. Although sometimes I find my writing improves when I take a break and come back to it.

  17. says

    It’s interesting to me that many people resist structure because they think it will stifle creativity, but I’ve always found that when I start with structure, I can be much more creative. Structure is really freeing! It’s trying to build something without the tiniest framework or support structure that can be overwhelming.

  18. says

    Excellent! I really appreciate the pre-outline free-form ideas. The idea of a core message that is the nervous system of your piece also stood out for me. I will definitely be applying these ideas. Thanks!

  19. says

    I think of outlining as one of the pre-writing techniques that I can use. I was making an outline when my staff came. And great timing indeed because I just saw an rss update and there you are talking about making outlines.

    Thank you very much.

    Jef Menguin

  20. says

    Great refresher, thanks.

    I’ve always struggled with structure but, even though I have to work harder at it than many, fully recognise that my written and spoken work is the better for it. Ask my wife!

    Cheers for the encouragement.

  21. says

    Billy Wilder said “The audience is fickle. Know where you’re going”. In other words, without structure you’ve got bubkas. But there’s more to this than meets the eye. Because structure is holistic. You can’t structure just part of a screenplay or blog post. They’re like watches. Change one cog and it impacts the whole piece.

  22. says

    Medium, Audience, Purpose — I love this! I hate to say it but I’m a fan of outlines. I like everything organized and structured, although when I recall those days in school when I had to cram, I did a pretty good job WITHOUT an outline! 😛 Now that I’m maintaining a blog, outlines help a lot. They keep me focused, and I love how you can reduce and expand your ideas with the help of a good outline.

    Great post, thanks for the tips!

  23. says

    I’d like to reinforce Lain’s point about giving a wordcound to each section. Get a sub-heading and stick your intended wordcount in brackets next to it. Even if you don’t end up sticking to the wordcount it helps keep you on track.

  24. says

    Sometimes I have trouble coming up with ideas so I sit down and just write. Often you’ll come up with a topic and some good content, but perhaps a bit disorganized. You’ve come up with some excellent ways of organizing your writing to get the real message across to the reader.

  25. says

    BEST advice ever! Even though I write a column for publication regularly, I always look for a way to AVOID doing what I should do: make an outline! Thanks for making it so clear as to both WHY and HOW plus the obvious benefits for taking it to heart.
    Thanks –

  26. says

    I like your combination of right-brain and left-brain techniques. Your focus on a core message is very smart. I’ve always had to start by writing down ideas and even diving in before I can write an ‘outline.’ I find that mind maps help me brainstorm and link ideas together and then I can do a more linear-type outline.

  27. Kennedy says

    Deadlines are key. They may be step 4 in this, but when it comes to writing, like you said, it’s near impossible to write something from start to finish in one sitting. It helps to break down your writing into sections (hello outlines) and tell yourself you need to have this section written by time A, the next by time B, and so on. If you visual it in steps it makes it much more approachable and sets easier goals. I am a huge advocate for outlines, but I almost thing that step 2. develop a core message, sh/could come first. If you have that central message that you want to continually drive home for your audience, I feel as though you almost need to know it PRIOR TO the outline so you can ensure that it IS in every section (or Roman numeral, as you so nostalgically referred to!). But, whatever the order, those really are four crucial – and helping – steps, and MAP is key, too. Never seen them referred to as MAP, and I like it…catchy!

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