5 Ways to Use Outlines for Better Content Creation
Content outlines help you organize your thoughts and create better content. Read this post to learn about the benefits and the process of outline creation.
Creating great content is something most writers strive for, but few are able to achieve.
I don’t want to sound condescending, but it’s a fact that 51% of writers are struggling to create quality content. Six hundred marketing writers admitted it in a LinkedIn survey. If that’s not disturbing enough, check out their main obstacles.
No, it’s not writer’s block or distractions. It's a shortage of time. Writers find it hard to create resultful content at scale. With new content being published at lightning speed, it’s hard to be quick yet comprehensive in your content.
After 20+ years of handling large content teams, I can feel your pain. I can also vouch for a content creation hack that works like magic in this situation:
Since I started creating outlines, I’ve never failed to meet publishing deadlines with content quality intact.
Still not convinced?
Then, read about how outlines can help you structure your content and optimize your content creation. After that, I’ll walk you through the outline creation process, step by step.
Let’s get started.
Why Use Outlines?
From idea to publication, the journey of content needs to be smooth and seamless. If you research, plan, and write in phases, lots of great content ideas can be lost in transit. That’s where content outlines come in handy.
In an outline, you collect all of your research work and talking points in one place. This way, you can shape up your final piece quickly and painlessly. Outlines have many other advantages as well. Let’s take a look at them.
1. They Speed Up Content Creation
When you create an outline, you wrap up all the time-consuming groundwork that goes into writing content. This way, you don't have to go hunting for things like examples and quotes later.
Everything that you need to create a stellar post is served to you on a platter. Just connect the dots, focus on the writing, and wrap up the job. Plus, even when racing towards deadlines, you won’t have to compromise on research or quality.
2. They Help Streamline Content Teams
Outlines not only help you write efficiently, but they also shorten the editing cycle.
If editors and other stakeholders are kept in the loop while formulating outlines, you can convey your expectations to content writers in a better way.
From content structure to typology, you can get as granular as needed in your outlines. The aim is to cap the writing-editing-revision time, which also stretches time-to-market.
If you outsource content creation to remote writers or freelancers, content outlines are a non-negotiable for you. You can set expectations (especially helpful with new writers) and extract high-quality work.
3. They Help Combat Writer’s Block
Even the best writers experience writer’s block from time to time.
I bet it does. To tide over those dark times, outlines can come in handy. Since all the broad content points are already lined up, you can muster up the energy to build your deliverables. Your productivity and deliverability don’t suffer.
4. They Reveal Linking Opportunities
If you create a lot of interconnected content pieces, you likely interlink them. Laying out content points in outlines highlights all the linking opportunities you can tap into. This way, outlines also help improve your content strategy.
5. They Help You Pitch Guest Posts Effectively
Whether you’re a veteran or a novice writer, I’m sure you’ve heard about content marketing. In essence, it means leveraging content to build brand awareness and generate leads. Guest posting on high-authority websites is a proven way to produce higher ROI from content.
However, publishers are busy people who receive hundreds of pitches daily. To showcase your post’s value proposition at a glance and to edge out the competition, outlines come in handy. If you send a tight outline that promises to provide value to the publisher’s audience, you can earn a spot on their blog.
The Outline-Creation Process
Outlines can be of many types—loose (with just a few pointers), detailed (if you are planning to delegate the writing), or extended (almost a full post). But the outline creation process remains the same. Take a look.
1. Identify a Topic
If you are not in the habit of organizing topics in a content calendar, spend extra time during this stage to research potential topics.
The topics you pick should satisfy user intent. If you write about things that your audience finds relatable and useful, your content will get traction.
To find resonant topics, you can search websites like Reddit and Quora. To drill down into the precise queries that your audience is typing, use platforms like AnswerThePublic.
It’s also wise to evaluate the ranking potential of keywords you plan to target. This way, you can identify low competition keywords that can edge your content into the SERPs.
Content that revolves around trending keywords (high volume + high competition) may get lost in the crowd, even if it offers great value.
I also recommend the “skyscraper technique” to source competitive content ideas.
In short, it means taking inspiration from your competitor’s content strategy. Just snoop around their feed and create content based on their high-performing keywords. Of course, stamp it with your unique content and trademark style.
Once you shortlist potential topics, check their readability and wow-factor. I mean, write titles that evoke emotions and stand out among similar topics. I use headline analyzer tools like CoSchedule for this task.
Before writing this post, I checked five title variations in CoSchedule and finalized the highest-scoring title.
You now have a title that can satisfy the audience, rank well on Google, and beat the competition.
2. Brainstorm and Organize the Talking Points
Once you are satisfied with the title, dive deep into the topic at hand.
Start by creating a content framework or skeleton.
In my outlines, I usually start by planning the content body and add the intro and conclusion at the end. This way, I can focus on the meat of the content. It also helps me plan word counts better.
That’s not to say that intros and conclusions are not important. In fact, they can literally make or break your content. Intros convey the content’s value proposition, and conclusions are the pay-off. So, feel free to follow an outlining style you are comfortable with.
Whatever way you tackle your content outlines, be sure to include all the essential components in the right order.
For example, podcast scripts typically contain an intro, outro, and show notes. For emails, you need subject lines, meta-titles, body-copy, and CTAs (if any).
Your outline should contain separate sub-headings for each component. Take a look at how I structured a recent content piece:
Use proper formatting to distinguish sub-headings and arrange them sequentially. If you need more detailed outlines, add more levels and lists.
While researching the topic, you might come across vitals data points that would look great in your final piece. You can put them down on pen and paper or use online/offline mind mapping.
To pin all those scattered ideas in one place, I like to use tools like WorkFlowy and Dynalist. I can create list-based outlines, indent sub-points, and drag-and-drop content as needed.
Here is an outline I recently created in WorkFlowy:
If you are not writing the final content, include clear instructions for the writer. Mention the target audience, purpose, and length of the content.
If SEO is a priority, mention the target keyword density. To indicate keyword priority, you can use color-coding. Similarly, if you aim to promote affiliates in your content, indicate their placement and context.
In my outlines, I find it useful to include checklists for writers to fill out. This way, writers don’t miss any vital points. It also improves accountability.
3. Expand on the Key Areas
Once you have a fair idea about what your content will look like, add the frills.
Below each sub-topic, jot down (in short) the examples, stats, quotes that are needed to flesh out and corroborate the point you are making. I find it useful to note down the original sources as well. This way, I can fetch the exact phrasing and credit the author when I get down to writing the content.
These days, visuals are a staple in all kinds of content. If your content is meant to be visual-rich, bring that to the notice of writers. Mention your preferred image sources, dimensions, and accreditation guidelines.
If you have the time, snip and paste relevant graphics, screenshots, and charts and include them in the outline. Or, provide reference images to help developers create images.
If you’re a tech-wizard like me, you likely use content-editing platforms. Some of these platforms offer license-free visuals and even fresh content ideas. Hyperlink the tools in your outline.
If you adhere to particular style guides for branding content, include links to them.
Want a pro tip?
I don’t mean to be the grammar police, but I can’t overemphasize the gravity of proofing your outlines.
Suppose you’re sending the outline to an external editor or prospective client. Sloppy outlines can give a bad first impression, possibly damage the deal. So, get your Ps and Qs right, even in the outline stage.
Reading aloud is a great way to spot grammar and articulation errors. You can use article-reading tools for this task. Trust me, content that I thought was “perfect” seemed far from it when it was voiced by a second person (or tool).
Ready to Create Great Outlines?
Let nobody fool you; content is still king. Well-crafted content will always have takers. Creating killer content is easy when you know the right tools. Outlines are one of my go-to tools. They help me and my content team stay organized and productive.
How do you create outlines? Share your strategy in the comments below.