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:
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 Center.com, 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.