Working From An Outline – Better Writing and Clearer Thinking

by Randy Murray on May 12, 2010

I’ve been working on a series of white papers and technical briefs for a client and it has brought fresh to my mind the value of writing from an outline. You probably learned the approach in elementary school. And you probably struggled with and against it. But I know the value of it and I think you’ll find it as well if you’ll reconsider the humble outline.

Expository writing, the art of conveying information or arguing a point, requires clear thought and communication. In conversation you may be able to carry the day by being enthusiastic, passionate, or briefly eloquent. But in written form, simple passion doesn’t hold up well. You must be able to withstand someone reading your words, following your logic, and thinking about your subject without you present to supply additional details or offer arguments. That means the clearer your message and the more detailed the points of your argument, the more likely you are to convince someone of the value of your message.

I also find outlining critical in improving the quality of my first draft. If I can create an outline and have my clients review it and say either “Yes, that’s exactly it” or “Not quite” and provide comments that strengthen my outline, then I can create a first draft that should be very close to what the client needs. That saves me time and review cycles, and makes me look smarter and more efficient in the eyes of the client. And it’s very important to have a solid first draft on a long-form piece. I’ve found that clients are reluctant to make multiple review passes, so the closer I can get on the first round, the more likely we are to get to the final draft without frustrating them.

So back to the basics. Start your writing process by creating a simple outline.

  1. Create the high level points of your argument first – don’t immediately fill in the detail levels of each point. The top level of your outline should be the skeleton of your argument, including the introduction and closing summary and conclusions.
  2. After your high level outline is complete, stop and review. This is the right time to ask, “Will this convey the information or make the argument I want?”
  3. Make the outline as detailed as possible, but not more than needed. The best outlines structure the points down to the paragraph level.
    1. This will make it very useful for someone else to review and examine your argument.
    2. It will make it very easy to write once you’re ready.
  4. For every 1 there should be a 2, for every A, a B.
    1. If your argument is segmented into sub-points, there must be more than one, or there’s no reason to subdivide.
    2. Your sub-points should offer the detailed level of your argument. If you find that you are uncertain on how or if to subdivide, this is an indication that you need to do more research or do more thinking about the subject.
  5. One you’ve completed your outline let it sit for a day, if possible, then review it and test to make sure you’re argument is complete and thorough.

The outline is perhaps one of those things you learned in school that you probably thought wouldn’t be useful in “real life.” But it’s extremely valuable.  If you find that your arguments aren’t persuading or your writing isn’t clear, try using your outlining skills. I’m betting you’ll find a significant improvement.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Mari May 12, 2010 at 12:45 pm

You get my vote, Randy, for the proliferation of clear thought and communication. I especially like your explanation at 4a and 4b! From my observations, this outline “rule” is oft unheeded.


2 Randy Murray May 12, 2010 at 1:04 pm

Thanks - one of my pet peeves and a sign of incomplete thought.


3 Mari May 12, 2010 at 1:18 pm

Mine, too. Some would call us “sticklers.”


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