Writers may have different processes for creativity, storytelling or editing, but outlining is a common practice of the most prolific writers. Your outline is like the train tracks that your writing train runs on. If you just run full speed without an outline, that’s a fast track to poorly supported conclusions and scattered thoughts. An outline is not restrictive, though. You can make changes to your original ideas as you write. But the outline will keep you focused and keep you from wandering away from your important points.
So, how do you create an outline that’s workable; one that you can actually use to guide your writing? The process is different for fiction and nonfiction. This article focuses on outlining for nonfiction writing.
Start With the Overall Structure
First, outline the different segments of your piece. If you’re writing a multi-page article or a book with multiple chapters, the first step is to determine what each page or chapter will cover. Once you have a bird’s eye view of the entire piece, you’ll be able to see if the piece is missing anything, or if anything is repetitive or out of order.
If you’re outlining a short article, such as a blog post, then skip this step and start from the next step.
Outline Each Part
For each segment, write out your outline in the following format:
– Purpose or main idea. This is often explained in the very first paragraph.
– Main points, paragraphs or subtitles. These are the handful of points you want to hit throughout the article.
– Supporting details. Within each point, make sure you have supporting details. These could include anecdotes, stories, statistics and more.
– Conclusion. How do you tie all these desperate segments together into one concise idea again?
Keep It Organized
Outlines can get quite complex, especially for larger works. For example, you might be writing an in-depth 10-page blog post with quotes, infographics, statistics, contrasting points of views, etc. or even a book of 200 or more pages. How can you keep all your ideas together, without your outline getting cluttered or ideas getting lost?
First, have a system for organizing your ideas. A typical system used in academic writing is to use roman numerals (I, II, III, etc.) for the first level, alphabets for the second level (A,B,C, etc.) and numbers for the third level (1,2,3,etc.) This lets you have points within points and supporting material for your supporting material without getting lost.
Having good software also helps a lot. For writing complex pieces, Microsoft Word or Open Office generally won’t suffice. Instead, software like Scrivener for Windows (or for Mac), which is designed for writers, can make the whole outlining and writing process much easier. Once you are finished writing, Scrivener also makes it easy to publish your work as an ebook.
Try Writing an Outline
Create an outline for a topic that you’ve researched recently. By the time you finish the outline, you should be able to “see” how the whole piece will unfold from beginning to end. Once you’ve written the outline, start writing and see how the outline makes writing faster and easier.