Whether you’re crafting a straightforward blog or you’re delving into an in-depth research article, there is a temptation to simply sit down and crank out the copy. Once you start writing, the thoughts will flow, the sentences will arrange themselves accordingly, and everything will come together properly.
Unfortunately, as any dedicated writer or marketer can attest to, crafting effective copy takes a bit of forethought. Prior to writing a piece, it’s important to take a moment to plan out exactly how you’re going to approach crafting your copy–by doing so, you can ensure that your piece will have a cohesive structure, and that you will use your overall writing time efficiently. Here are a few of the key benefits of outlining an article beforehand.
The Theme of Your Piece
The most important benefit of outlining is that it can help a writer to determine the overall theme–or point–of a piece. Let’s say that you want to craft a blog about how Cision is the most effective marketing tool on the market. The first step in crafting this piece is to answer the critical unsaid question: why? Why is Cision the most effective marketing tool? Is it because it helps you stay organized? Or is it because it helps you connect with reporters and editors around the world?
Consider the following sentences:
A) Cision is the best tool a PR rep could ask for.
B) Cision is the best tool a PR rep could ask for because it features an unrivaled database of top reporters and editors around the world.
By addressing the unsaid question, you are able to determine the theme of your piece–Cision is great because it has a fantastic database. Once you’ve established the theme (or the why?), you can then break down how you will explore this concept on a paragraph-by-paragraph level.
Secondly, by addressing the theme, you can avoid burying the lede. A reader wants to know what the point of a piece is from the get-go–this is known as the lede, or the vital point or points that the reader needs to know about this story. In a traditional journalism story, the lede often appears right at the start of the piece.
Let’s say that you’re crafting a news piece about a revolutionary environmentally friendly car. The lede for that story would probably look something like this:
Acme Motors’ new Eco car line, which debuted at the Berlin Auto Show last May, is the most environmentally friendly car on the market, according to Green Car Reports. While most vehicles use gasoline to power their engines, the Eco car relies solely on water as a fuel source.
The lede for this piece lets you know the crucial parts of the story–that the Eco car is unique for a particular reason–right from the start.
A lede can appear in the first paragraph or even the first sentence of a piece. However, if you are not aware of the point of your piece from the start, you may “bury” your lede further down in the copy. This may cause the reader to become distracted or confused, since they may not be clear from the beginning on what the piece is actually about. By outlining before writing, you will establish the point of your piece immediately, and you can then decide how to examine this point in a clear and thoughtful fashion.
When outlining, you can provide a thorough breakdown of how you will write the piece on a paragraph-by-paragraph level. By doing this, you can ensure that you will use your writing time properly, as you will understand where you need to go with your narrative as you tackle each paragraph or section. When outlining, there’s no need to go overboard: You can craft a detailed structural breakdown that explicitly highlights what you will say in each paragraph, or you can craft a simple outline that only offers a sentence or two regarding your approach within each section. The point is that with an outline, you’ll have a roadmap of sorts–you’ll understand where you need to go with the piece as you write it.
Research: Offering The Right Information
Outlining beforehand is useful from a research perspective, as well. Going into a piece, you may have a rough idea regarding the facts, statistics, or other data you might want to use within the copy. When outlining, you can determine a structural breakdown of the piece–in other words, what you will say in each paragraph–and you can also establish what type of information you will use within each individual section. For example, if you’re crafting a piece about press releases, you might want to include a section about the overall effectiveness of press releases–in other words, do they actually work on a consistent basis? If you want to make the case that press releases are effective, then you need to have the statistics to back up your assertion. By outlining, you can decide what type of research you will need for your piece even before actually begin writing it.
Gaps in Logic
Let’s say you’re making an argument: Press releases are no longer valuable. Your position is a controversial one, so you need to have facts to backup your case. You also need to make sure that there aren’t any obvious holes in your logic. By outlining, you can determine what kind of information you might need for your piece in advance, but you will also have a chance to examine your position from top-to-bottom. You might find during the outline stage that you overlooked a critical point in your argument. However, with a proper outline, you can ensure that you’ll present a solid case to your readers.
Supplemental Imagery or Charts
A good blog or article understands how to convey information in an easily digestible fashion. In other words, when crafting a blog, it’s critical that you present your copy in a way that won’t overwhelm the reader. Large, dense paragraphs might work for an academic journal, but they’re not appropriate for blogs, which are often intended to be read or scanned quickly. With that in mind, you might find at the outline stage that you can break up your copy, or supplement your information, by including charts, tables, or imagery. Determining the kind of images or charts you might need for your piece is far easier to do at the outline stage than the final drafting stage.
Every good narrative needs a good ending. With an outline, you can develop your conclusion right from the start, guaranteeing that you will present a cohesive narrative structure from the first sentence down to the very last word. Once you highlight the theme of your piece in the outline, you can check to make sure that every section within the article or blog addresses this theme. Ideally, the conclusion reiterates your theme–e.g. Cision is excellent because of X, Y, or Z–and points out to your reader why your main argument matters.
An outline is a compass bearing, offering you clear guidance and direction at every stage of the writing process. An outline doesn’t need to be extensive–it can be detailed, or short and sweet. But by outlining before you write, you can guarantee that you will use your writing time in the most effective way possible.
Stefan Slater obtained his Master of Fine Arts in Narrative Nonfiction from Goucher College. He is a writer with over seven years of content creation experience, and his nonfiction work has appeared in a number of publications, including LA Weekly, Hakai, Angeleno, Surfer, and more. He is Circa Interactive’s lead editor.