Outlines make it easier to write long feature stories, research papers, and how-to books. But, many writers are afraid of this powerful tool. Take the stress out of writing by following these tips to develop an outline for an informational article and help your writing flow smoothly.
I used to think that outlining was an unnecessary and cumbersome chore. But when I became a computer book writer, I was forced to change my thinking. You see, book publishers require a writer to develop an outline along with the book proposal before they offer the writer a book contract.
I really wanted those book contracts. So I put my old thinking aside and learned to love the outline.
How did I do it? I decided to immerse myself in the outlining process. It was as simple as taking out a pen and jotting down my ideas. After a few short brainstorming sessions, I was amazed at how quickly my outlines took shape.
How to Develop an Outline for an Informational Article
Informational articles of all word counts and page lengths benefit from a well-organized outline. By outlining your next informational article, you’ll spend less time developing a story, and you’ll create an article your audience will enjoy.
Decide on the Article Length
Whether you’re writing a 200-word blog post or a 200-page how-to book, your outline framework will be the same. It’s the length and detail of the outline that is different.
Articles are divided into parts or logical groupings of the subject matter. Within each part are paragraphs that give in-depth information about the part’s topic. An outline is a list of titles for each group along with subtitles that provide detailed information.
The length of your article will determine the length of your outline. Here are a few rules of thumb that I follow:
- Short articles (under 1000 words) can be outlined with just a one-sentence description of the article’s purpose and a list of three or four main topics.
- Long articles (between 1000 and 5000 words) need extended outlines. This means a longer description and a list of five or six main topics with subtopics.
- Book-length articles (over 5000 words and more than 10 pages) require detailed outlines. I’ve found that for every 10 to 15 pages of a manuscript, I develop one page of outline.
An informational article isn’t only about word count. It’s also about the lists, sidebars, tables, and tips that make data in an article stand out. Keep these elements in mind when you develop an outline for an informational article. I like to make notes in an outline to show where these elements would be useful.
Develop Your Idea
Think of an outline as a guide. A guide that helps you develop the main idea of your article and present supporting details in a logical order.
Begin by writing a short description of the informational article. This is your thesis, your main topic, your one-sentence summary of what your audience will find. This description can also be used as the meta description for a piece of web content.
Then, write down the main topics you want to cover in the article and arrange these topics so that it makes the most sense to your audience. Make your outline more useful by listing the material you want to cover in each of the main topics.
As you develop your outline, make sure this main idea is clearly stated in the beginning and perpetuated throughout the outline.
Organize the Outline
As you develop an outline for an informational article, ask yourself these questions to make sure the article content and order will give your audience the best experience:
- Is the outline organized in a logical and useful format? Be sure to discuss necessary skills and concepts before more complex subjects.
- Is the outline organized in a way the audience will use the information? How-to and instructional articles are task-oriented, not feature-oriented. Show your readers the benefits of using the information.
- Is the outline organized to help the audience understand the topic? How-to and instructional articles explain how things work. Show your readers how your article can be a valuable reference tool.
- Does the outline use active and descriptive headings? Tell your audience what is going on in your informational article. Use headings such as Start the Program, not The Program.
An article’s structure is influenced by many factors. When you outline the article, remember that your audience needs to grasp introductory information before they can tackle more advanced topics. Be alert to logical groupings of material in your article.
Test the Usability of the Outline
When you’re finished with your outline, test the order of its contents by asking these questions:
- Have you presented all the introductory information your audience needs to know at the beginning of the outline?
- Have you put the sections (parts, chapters, or sessions) of the outline in the best order?
- Is the order of the outline sequential? Each part should naturally follow from earlier parts. Sequential order is essential for step-by-step directions.
- Is the order of the outline’s content developmental? The material should progress from simple to complex or from elementary to advanced.
- Is the order of the material progressive? Discuss fewer ideas more slowly and with greater patience at the beginning. Then, with accelerated pace, present additional ideas more swiftly toward the end.
After you’ve checked and double-checked your outline and made it the best it can be, it’s time to start writing. And don’t fret if you make a few changes to the outline while you write your informational article. The great thing about an outline is that it can be flexible. But the more outlines you develop, the less flexible your outlines will need to be.
Keep Improving Your Outlining Skills
The best way to become comfortable with outlining is to always outline. No matter how many words you plan to write, always develop an outline for an informational article before you begin. Once you get in the habit of working with an outline, you’ll never start writing without it.
Want to improve your outlining skills? Check out these resources:
- Purdue OWL (The Online Writing Lab at Purdue University) has a short course on Developing an Outline. This course covers the components of an outline and the different types of outlines.
- The Writer’s Web at the University of Richmond posted an article on Creating Outlines. You’ll find examples of different types of outlines.