Creating a Good Outline: The First Writing Step You Didn’t Know You Needed

by Lesley-Anne Longo

Published at 2022-06-28

Are you trying to get your writing underway? Are you not sure where to begin? Why not create an outline? If you’ve never worked with one before, you might be surprised at how it eases the process of writing a longer work.


How, you might ask, can an outline ease the writing process? Well, an outline helps you visualize and organize information that you want to write about, like a step-by-step guide for writing. If you are writing a business or research report or an academic paper or book manuscript, an outline can help you keep track of large amounts of information and data and illustrate the relationships between different ideas. For creative writing, an outline can help you keep track of plot threads and character arcs, giving you a bird’s-eye view of your content as a whole.



How to Create an Outline


First, it’s helpful to think about the audience you’re writing for, as this will inform the kind of outline you create. If you’re an academic writer, an outline might be more about the arguments or about the hierarchical or logical ordering of information. For a creative writer, an outline might be a little less rigid, perhaps more of a chapter outline of how the plot and characters progress as the reader moves through the book.


Second—and this is definitely aimed more towards the nonfiction writers—you need to think about your thesis, the point of the document, and what you’re trying to show or prove. Once you have the main thesis, you can brainstorm to come up with the ideas and points of proof you want to include.


You can do this by evaluating the data and information you’ve collected and grouping these into broad categories. From there, you can dig deeper and be more specific as you get into subcategories and the finer points you’d like to make, even getting into paragraph structuring and ordering if you would like to. These sections are often be numbered, especially in the case of an academic paper or a report. For example:





                What is ice cream?

                It’s a crowd favourite—what makes it so?

1. It’s cold

                1.1 It’s refreshing on a hot day

                1.2 You have to eat it slowly which makes you enjoy it longer

                1.3 It lasts a long time because it is frozen

2. There are lots of great flavours

                2.1 The classics: chocolate and vanilla

                2.2 Fruity flavours

                2.3 You can usually mix and match flavours to create interesting combinations

3. You can add fun toppings

                3.1 Toppings add unique flavour components to the ice cream

                                3.1.1 Sauces: hot fudge, caramel, strawberry

                                3.1.2 Fruits

                                3.1.3 Salty-sweet: Nuts, pretzels, etc.

                3.2 Toppings add unique texture components to the ice cream

                                3.2.1 Gummies

                                3.2.2 Crunchy toppings: cookie pieces, sprinkles, etc.


                Ice cream is a fun treat that has something for everyone, no matter what flavours they prefer.

  What are your reasons for liking ice cream?



You can see in the example that I’ve grouped my information into the introduction, three main topics, and the conclusion. In the three main topics, I’ve added subcategories (and sub-subcategories) to get into more detailed information, data, and discussion.



Still Think You Don’t Need an Outline?


You may not think an outline would be beneficial or helpful for you, but if you give it a shot, you might find that organizing your thoughts this way can help streamline the document as a whole, whether you are writing a full manuscript, a detailed report, or a journal paper.


An outline isn’t supposed to restrict you, it’s supposed to act as a guide, a framework. It can even be helpful if you decide you want to switch things around as you write—thanks to the outline, you’ll know where each section is located and exactly what information it contains. And, if you’re like me, a writer who can tend to drift off course into a tangent, an outline can help prevent that from happening. If you do drift off course, you can more easily reorient yourself to get back on track.



Added Bonus: An Outline Helps You Start Writing


As an added bonus, if you are one of the many, many people who struggle to start writing something, and outline can be even more helpful because you don’t necessarily need to start at the beginning of the document. That is, you don’t need to write the introduction first! You can begin by addressing any of the key sections (for instance, starting by working with section 2 in the above example) and then move on as you please. Sometimes writing the body of the document first will give you ideas on what to include in the introduction.



Don’t Stress About It


In the end, your outline is supposed to be a bare-bones framework of your first draft, a guide telling you what you need to cover and when you need to cover it. It doesn’t need to be perfect! As long as it’s clear and you understand it easily, it’s good enough.


In case you’ve already written your document and fear it’s not quite as concise or well-organized as you might want it to be, then check out our blog on the magic of reverse outlining, which is creating an outline from an existing document and working backwards from there!


Good luck! And may you start writing soon!


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