The joy of outlining

Whether you’re writing a white paper, a set of instructions, help for a mobile app, or a simple blog post, your first step is planning. And planning means analyzing your audience, defining a purpose, gathering information, and developing a preliminary outline.

Why create an outline

Why bother with an outline when you have all the information you need tucked safely away in your head? An outline ensures that some of that extensive information in your head isn’t inadvertently left there, never to make its way onto the page or screen. It helps you keep on point, so that you don’t distract readers with nonessential information. It helps you stay on task despite disruptions and distractions.

An outline is a map you can use as you to develop, revise, and test your ideas with reviewers. It can make the writing experience straightforward. And if you take pleasure in efficiency, an outline can help make the writing experience downright fun.

Choose your outline type

To prepare a detailed outline, sort the information you have gathered into topics of relatively equal importance, then identify subtopics. For short documents like quick references or online help topics, you might choose an informal outline, which can be a simple numbered list of topics. For example, if your task is to write a quick reference card on preparing for a laboratory procedure, you might use the following informal outline:

1. Draw blood.

2. Store blood.

3. Dilute samples.

4. Purify samples.

5. Clean prep station.

For more complex documents, choose a formal topic or sentence outline. A topic outline uses key words, and it includes subtopics. A sentence outline develops topics using complete sentences. For most documents, a topic outline provides an adequate guide. But if you are writing a lengthy document – say a chapter or section in a book – consider writing a sentence outline that provides specific details.

Example topic outline on outlining

I.    Why an outline is important

A. Provides a map to follow as you write

B. Makes sure relevant information not dropped

C. Keeps extraneous information out

II.    Types of outlines

A. Informal numbered

B. Topic

C. Sentence

D. When to use each type

III.   Drafting a document using an outline

Note: Headings and subheadings stand for divisions of information, and a division means that there are at least two parts. So, a single subhead – “A” for example – cannot exist without a second subhead, “B.”

Draft the document

Expect to change the document’s structure as you write, even if you’re using a detailed outline. What looked simple in the outline may be convoluted in the first draft, so you create some new topics as you’re writing. Or, what you planned as a major section may contain very little information, so you opt to subordinate that information in another section.

The outline is a guideline, not a rule, and you’re allowed to change your mind as you write. In my example topic outline on outlining, the final subtopic under “Types of outline” is “When to use each type.” But when I wrote the blog post, I found it easier to incorporate a discussion of when to use each type of outline when I defined the type. Also, I thought of a new topic on how to use an outline when you are preparing a revision for publication, so I added it as a tip at the end of the post.

Evaluate document structure

After you have completed a good draft, reevaluate the document’s structure. Is the flow of ideas logical? Is the text coherent and complete? If you have a table of contents, you have a quick way to evaluate overall logic before you revise and edit what you have written. Any initial headings you have used in the document provide another sort of map to your document’s structure. You’re looking at general structure, not specific text. Reorganize any parts of the text necessary before you refine the document in the next draft.

A tip on revisions

If you’re writing product documentation, you probably have to update print and online documents to accommodate product updates. Sometimes there is a need to restructure before you add new content. Try outlining the original to see if you can find logical flaws, and revise the outline to correct the flaws. Then, reorganize the old text and add new content using your new outline. Using an outline to correct flaws in the original can be a source of joy not only to the writer but also to the reader who no longer has to endure a difficult-to-follow document.

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