Outlining: 4 Ways to Approach a Blank Page

CAREER

December 21, 2021

Joy Youell

Joy Youell is an expert copywriter and content strategist.

If you hope to become a more efficient writer, the only way to get there is to use effective outlining practices. There are probably endless approaches, all of which can be tweaked to align with how you approach content development. To my mind, there are four primary methods that any writer at any level of proficiency can effectively use. 

Depending on the ultimate goal or type of piece you are creating, one of these may fit the bill. Whether you apply them to a blog, pillar, white paper, email, anything: these outlining approaches will help you organize ideas and ensure you don’t have to make big decisions along the way.

See my explanation in a video on Instagram.

1. SEO = Headlines First

If you are assigned SEO copywriting, your best bet is to outline using headlines first. This is because all of your headlining decisions must be made in advance of developing content. You need to know the basic topical areas you’ll hit, and that will drive the content you produce. You’ll need to do the research, selecting the keywords and phrases that best fit the ideas you want to write about, as well as addressing the right search queries.

Example Topic: Outlining an Article for AI and Climate Change

Here’s how I would approach this, for example:


2. Bookends 

I find bookend outlining enormously helpful if you already know what ideas you need to introduce, then what your ultimate wrap-up idea will be. In bookending, you first write the intro and outro, or the opening and conclusion of your piece. I find this helps a lot if you are writing about a really vast topic, too. It keeps you within your word count range, ensuring you stay on target and don’t venture too far into related ideas.

Example Topic: Gluten-Free Bread

Here’s how I would approach this, for example:

3. Narrative Flow = Progression

A third option for outlining your copy is to follow a narrative flow, or progressive ideas. I find this is most helpful in two contexts: first is if you are giving sequential instructions, second is if you are writing something in which an argument has to build. If ideas rely on each other, and must come in some kind of succession, this is your best bet for outlining. If you don’t outline this way for this kind of content, you’re going to do some heavy editing because you’ll have to course correct or go back and fill in what you miss. A solid progressive outline ensures you don’t leave any important ideas out, and your piece flows logically from beginning to end.

Example Topic: How to Cut Your Own Hair

Here’s how I would approach this, for example:

4. Source-Driven

A last option for outlining articles or any piece of written content is to focus on sources. I probably use this method the most, but that’s because we write a lot of academic or conceptually dense content. If you know you’re going to need a lot of external authoritative sources, source-driven outlining is the way to go. You basically do the research in advance, collecting all of the links you need and then structuring the piece in a way that makes sense. You can do this kind of outlining in addition to SEO, which is probably what I’m most familiar with. You’ll have supporting content ready to roll, meaning you can quickly grab two side by side browsers and go to town crafting the actual copy.

Example Topic: CRE in Texas

Here’s how I would approach this, for example:


4b: Competitor-Driven

A last method is kind of a subsection of research-based or source-driven outlining, and it’s competitive-driven. Sometimes, you are writing a piece for the sole purpose of outranking or outperforming something a competitor has created. When this is the case, you’re laser-focused on SERP-level SEO and directly addressing the concepts they’ve covered (only better). Outlining shifts a lot in this context, because what you choose to cover will be impacted by the competitor content.

How to Improve Outlining

Like most things in the world of copywriting, the best way to improve outlining is to practice. Practice doing this with every piece. If you find yourself looking at a blank page, consider if one of these four outlining methods is the write approach. If not, what is? How can you organize your ideas and concepts in advance to produce content as efficiently and effectively as possible? Create a system. Stick to it. It gives you fewer decisions to make on the fly when you’re following a pattern, which is the ultimate key to moving faster.

Qs? You can always contact us.


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