The primrose path of a poem. The scenic drive of a feature article. The information superhighway of a user guide.
An effective piece of writing takes the audience from introduction to conclusion with a clear narrative direction. When it comes to content creation for marketing, where the end goal is to build long-term profitable relationships with readers, the destination is just as important as the journey. The writer is the guide, and it’s their job to plot the route.
For some copywriters, an outline is the first step in planning the reader’s journey. They like to know exactly how they’ll get where they’re going.
Others find it’s constricting, boring, or just not right for their creative process. They prefer to see where the road takes them, adjusting course along the way.
Whether you’re a fan of structure or prefer to go with the flow, every piece of content has to start somewhere. Here are a few ways an outline can be a useful roadmap for the writing process, plus some alternative routes to take instead.
The Path Forward: What Makes a Good Outline?
For those writers (like me) who prefer them, an outline is more than just the steps leading to the conclusion. An outline gives structure to ideas and determines the course the piece will take.
Outlines can be detailed, packed full of research, sources, and ideas. Or they can be spartan, with just a few bullet points highlighting the key takeaways.
A solid outline can be a useful way to organize thoughts or even communicate them to others. We’ll often come up with an outline and send it to a client to approve before we get started. Conversely, clients might send an outline for us to turn into a blog post, ebook, white paper, or even an infographic.
This isn’t a guide to creating outlines. There are plenty of other great resources out there for that. But I’ve found there are a few elements the most effective outlines have:
- Destination: Design your outline with the end goal in mind, ideally identified in the creative brief the client provides. Where should the reader end up? What’s the point of the piece – lead generation, SEO, or education?
- Direction: Where will the narrative start, and how will the reader get to the destination? Consider the content format, reader persona, and any other specifications from the client.
- Milestones: What are the key points readers should learn about on the way? This can be section headers, statistics, or resources dropped into the outline. Going over the milestones is a good way to be sure you’ve addressed everything in the creative brief.
- Flexibility: A good outline, like a good plan, is never set in stone. It can be adjusted for feedback or revisited during the writing process if needed.
Building a solid outline can take just as long as writing the final product, but it can be a useful guide along the way. There’s no right way to write an outline – if you even use one at all.
Alternative Directions: Other Ways to Plan
Of course, an outline isn’t a prerequisite to the writing process. Many writers prefer other ways to get their thoughts onto the page.
There are just as many methods for jumpstarting your writing process as there are authors. These are just a sample:
- Mind and concept maps
- Word clouds
- Writing apps, like Scrivener
- Flash cards
- Flow charts
- Annotated bibliographies
- ChatGPT and AI
Copywriters may use one or a combination of these as a starting point for their work – or they might just jump right into writing. Some content marketers might use different approaches depending on their topic or the type of project. The process looks different for everyone.
Finding Your Way
When all is said and done, is an outline effective? It depends greatly on the writer and the piece.
I, for one, am firmly on Team Outline. It’s the best way for me to get my thoughts together and set the path forward before I begin. If I get stuck while writing, I can return to my outline and remember where I’m going.
It’s not a perfect process. I’ll move sections of my outline around as I work, adding or deleting parts to make the final piece flow. Sometimes the original outline simply doesn’t translate into prose, and I’ll start over. But I’ve rarely regretted any time spent on an outline.
On the other hand, I know a lot of amazing writers who’ve never used a traditional outline and just as many whose outlines look fundamentally different from mine. Each journey is different, and there’s no set route to the destination.