Prepare A Comprehensive Outline For Best Writing Results

Last week’s post focused on organizing your thoughts to write better.  It dealt primarily with the preparation of a preliminary plan as the first step in organizing your thoughts before writing. Also discussed was the task of information gathering as being secondary to plan preparation.

 After gathering the information needed for your writing project, the next step is to prepare an outline.

Creation of a workable outline should begin with the big picture.  First, organize your thoughts and mentally plan your approach.  Make a note of all the ideas you generate about what you want to write.  Next, organize your ideas into a logical order.  Finally, add appropriate detail.  Much as in working a jigsaw puzzle, your reader will more easily absorb the details after seeing the big picture.  Draft an outline that is logical, cohesive, and flows smoothly.  You don’t want anyone reading a lot of pages before finally figuring out what you’re trying to say. 

In the process of preparing the outline, try to anticipate questions your reader may ask.  Organize your outline to respond to these questions.  Readers are often looking for answers, either by reading documents or visiting websites.  They want to know how to do something or to get the answer to a problem, and they want the answer as quickly and easily as possible under the circumstances.  So, keep these concerns in mind when preparing your outline.

There are three workable approaches to use in preparing an outline: traditional, the so-called “spinning wheel” method, and what may be called the “stream of consciousness” approach.  The first one envisions use of Roman numerals, capital letters, Arabic numbers, followed by small letters.  This traditional approach is best for presentation of material in an organized, logical fashion.  In adopting the traditional approach, the topic outline and the sentence outline are commonly used. The sentence outline requires use of complete sentences and appropriate punctuation.  Examples of both types, which I used to outline the subject “John Adams, An Unrecognized President”, appear in my book, “The Art of Clear Writing,” pp 23-28, which is available at books as well as in print on and

Another approach to outlining, the “spinning wheel” concept, may be better suited for the development of ideas.  This approach starts with the “hub” of the wheel as the central idea of the writing, with subsidiary ideas flowing out from the hub as the wheel’s “spokes.”

There is a third approach, what I call “stream of consciousness” for lack of a better description, which I’ve used from time to time.   Sometimes, for whatever reason, it just seems easier to start writing.  Start with the main idea for the writing.  Then, as more ideas come along, begin to create an outline and rearrange your material.  Continue to write to fill in gaps in the material.  Feel free to use this approach as long as the end result is well organized and clearly written.

Use the outline to prepare appropriate paragraph headings and subheadings.  As you are developing your outline, create as many topic headings as appears necessary for the material.  Don’t skimp in this area.  The creation of topic headings goes hand-in-glove with the preparation of your outline.

Create crisp, sharp paragraph headings and subheadings to help your reader focus on the content of each paragraph.  Arrange the paragraphs as necessary to provide a logical flow of information.  Keep in mind that short sections are better.  A long, dense paragraph is a daunting and discouraging sight.  But if your writing is presented in short, manageable, bite-sized pieces of approximately fifty to seventy five words, it will be easier to digest because the entire content of each section can be more easily captured in the heading.

Also, short sections make the document more visually appealing so it appears easier to understand.  A long section will increase the difficulty of preparing a meaningful summary of its heading.  Short sections will provide the opportunity to write more headings to go with them and should also help you to organize your writing more effectively.  In this scenario, brevity is a prince, verbosity a pauper.

Boldface the section headings to create a roadmap for quick and easy reference to your document. 

Use common sense in preparing paragraph headings.  They should not be so long as to overwhelm the reader.  On the other hand, overly broad headings such as “General” and “Scope” are not useful and are not recommended.

Once your outline is complete, you will find that the preparation of your first draft will be a much easier task.

Copyright © 2012.  Arnold G. Regardie.  All rights reserved.

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Filed under active voice, clear writing, good diction, punctuation, sound sentence structure, tips for good diction, Writing Improvement

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