How to Write a Blog Post Outline: A Simple Formula to Follow

    by Ginny Soskey

    Date

    May 5, 2014 at 8:00 AM

    blog_post_outlineWhat makes a blog post bad?

    There are lots of reasons a blog post could be less-than-perfect. Poor formatting. Poor grammar. Poor word choice. Poor shareability. 

    The most pervasive problem? Poor flow. The post jumps from one idea to the next to the next and then circles around again for a split second to the first idea, then back to the fourth, and so on. Or the post reads like a stream of consciousness -- but it wasn't a stylistic choice. 

    Luckily, you have a simple solution. Before diving headfirst into writing your post, you can create an outline. 

    I'm not talking about jotting down a few quick bullet points -- even experienced writers can go astray with just a few talking points. I'm talking a fully fleshed-out outline with enough details that make it virtually impossible for your writing to go off the deep end. And it's pretty easy to do.

    Below is my method for outlining posts and organizing my thoughts. You may prefer to switch up some of the steps depending on your writing style, but your end goal should always be to get an outline detailed enough that its result is a cohesive, logical piece. Here's one way you can do that. 

    1) Nail your working title.

    This is the most important step of this entire process. You want to have a clear understanding of what you're going to write before you start outlining. 

    My colleague Corey wrote an awesome post about how to pick a great working title. Go read it, now. I won't go too much into the weeds here (that's why you should read her post), but a great working title is specific. It's "How to Use Images to Generate Leads on Twitter," not " Twitter lead generation."

    Spend time getting your working title to something specific and easy to tackle in a blog post format -- but don't waste time getting nitpicky. You can refine your title later. The goal here is to have a title that gives you a very clear idea of what the whole piece is about. You can make it sound catchy later.  

    2) Write down as many distinct takeaways from the article as you can.

    Next, you get to brain dump. Write down all the things you want your readers to get out of the article. These won't always be the main sections of your article -- it's just all the things you want your readers to know by the end of reading your post.

    This is the only time in the whole process you're not worried about organization -- just let your ideas flow naturally. You need to get out all of your wild and crazy ideas now so they won't muck up your post later in the process.

    Let's use the previous example to show you what I mean. If my working title was "How to Use Images to Generate Leads on Twitter," I'd probably want readers to know:

    • What sets a good image apart from a bad one on Twitter
    • Where they can find images to use legally 
    • How they can create images on their own
    • What sizes they need to make images
    • How often they should tweet images
    • How to actually upload an image to Twitter
    • How they can generate a lead on Twitter
    • How long their tweet should be with the image in it
    • What results they should expect to get 

    Notice how these are really unfiltered and all over the place. That's okay. We'll wrangle it all in in the next step.

    3) Break up those takeaways into larger sections.

    Now, we'll take that jumble of ideas and place them into overarching sections. Think of it like sorting laundry -- each thought belongs to a different pile. From your brainstorm, you should come up with a few big themes. Sometimes, one of your brainstorming bullets will be a theme in itself, but usually several bullets will fall under one overarching theme. You may also realize that there's a theme that you may not have any bullets for, but the post definitely calls for it. 

    Lots of people recommend sticking to 3-4 larger sections, but it really depends on what type of post you're writing. If you're writing something that's long and comprehensive, you might need more. If it's a quick post, fewer sections would be ideal. But if you need a benchmark, 3-4 sections are fine. 

    So if we're writing that post about generating leads on Twitter using images, we'd bucket my ideas into the following buckets:

    1. Intro
    2. Crafting a Twitter Image Lead Gen Strategy
      • How they can generate a lead on Twitter
      • How often they should tweet images
    3. How to Create the Perfect Lead Gen Tweet
      • How long their tweet should be with the image in it
      • How to actually upload an image to Twitter
      • What sizes they need to make images
      • How they can create images on their own
      • Where they can find images to use legally 
      • What sets a good image apart from a bad one on Twitter
    4. Measuring Your Strategy's Success
      • What results they should expect to get

    4) Add more takeaways to some sections. 

    At this point, you should have a pretty weird looking outline. Mine is. Some sections have lots of little bullet points, others have only a few, and others have nothing. 

    Now's the time to fill in the holes. What did you miss in your initial brainstorm? Thinking about what's missing is always hard, but it will help improve your final post significantly. 

    Don't forget to beef up your intro here, too. Have a great point you think would set the stage for the article? Add a little reminder below that section so you don't forget it. 

    Below shows how my outline's evolved. I italicized all the things I added, and the outline is becoming closer and closer to being a post:

    1. Intro
      • Images work really well on Twitter (find study)
    2. Crafting a Twitter Image Lead Gen Strategy
      • How they can generate a lead on Twitter
      • How often they should tweet images
    3. How to Create the Perfect Lead Gen Tweet
      • How long their tweet should be with the image in it
      • How to actually upload an image to Twitter
      • What sizes they need to make images
      • How they can create images on their own
      • Where they can find images to use legally 
      • What sets a good image apart from a bad one on Twitter
      • Should you tag people in images
      • Should you use photo collages
      • What colors you should use to stand out
    4. Measuring Your Strategy's Success
      • What results they should expect to get
      • Which metrics to look at
      • How to find them in your analytics
      • How to adjust the above to get better results

    Essentially, you're re-doing the second step, but in a more controlled, organized manner.

    5) Revise, remove, and reorganize details in each section.

    Now comes the fun part: editing your outline. You've already done the hard part of actually thinking of your ideas. Now, you're tightening up your outline to include only the most relevant information, revising the sub-bullets to actually make sense, and reorganizing the sub-bullets to tell the most logical story.

    First, let me show you what I'd cut -- shown in bold. 

    1. Intro
      • Images work really well on Twitter (find study)
    2. Crafting a Twitter Image Lead Gen Strategy
      • How to generate a lead on Twitter
      • How often they should tweet images
    3. How to Create the Perfect Lead Gen Tweet
      • How long their tweet should be with the image in it
      • How to actually upload an image to Twitter (This is a pretty basic step that someone would already know if they're reading this post.)
      • What sizes they need to make images
      • How they can create images on their own
      • Where they can find images to use legally 
      • What sets a good image apart from a bad one on Twitter
      • Should you tag people in images
      • Should you use photo collages
      • What colors you should use to stand out (Don't believe there's hard data on this, just speculation. Let's cut it.)
    4. Measuring Your Strategy's Success
      • What results they should expect to get (The study in the first part should cover this bullet point.)
      • Which metrics to look at
      • How to find them in your analytics
      • How to adjust the above to get better results

    I cut things usually because the sub-bullet didn't add value to the post or the reader would already know it. That's a pretty good benchmark to remember if you're not sure whether to cut something. 

    Next, we'll reorganize the remainder of the sub-bullets and rework them to sound like actual takeaways. We'll also turn some of the sub-bullets into sub-sub-bullets. Here's what this outline looks like now:

    1. Intro
      • Images tend to work really well on Twitter (find study)
    2. Crafting a Twitter Image Lead Gen Strategy
      • How to generate a lead on Twitter
      • How lead generation fits in with the rest of your Twitter strategy
    3. How to Create the Perfect Lead Gen Tweet
      • How to choose the right image
        • Creating it on your own 
        • Finding images to use legally
      • Optimizing the image for Twitter
        • Sizing images for Twitter
        • Tagging people in images
        • Using Photo Collages
      • Optimizing the rest of your tweet
        • How long the tweet should be with the image in
    4. Measuring Your Strategy's Success
      • Which metrics to look at
      • How to find them in your analytics
      • How to adjust your strategy to get better results

    Ta-da! A much more comprehensive outline that makes your post easy to write.

    6) Include links to your examples and/or data.

    This is purely a time-saving trick. After you've fully fleshed out and then trimmed your outline, you should look for examples and data to support these claims. Once you find a source to support your arguments, just add them as a note underneath the section -- that way, when you go to write it, it's all organized for you.  

    Here's what my outline morphed into. I grabbed the link for the Twitter study I wanted to reference in the intro and added a reference to an article we've written on Twitter collages.

    1. Intro
    2. Crafting a Twitter Image Lead Gen Strategy
      • How to generate a lead on Twitter
      • How lead generation fits in with the rest of your Twitter strategy
    3. How to Create the Perfect Lead Gen Tweet
      • How to choose the right image
        • Creating it on your own 
        • Finding images to use legally
      • Optimizing the image for Twitter
      • Optimizing the rest of your tweet
        • How long the tweet should be with the image in
    4. Measuring Your Strategy's Success
      • Which metrics to look at
      • How to find them in your analytics
      • How to adjust your strategy to get better results

    7) If any details come to you that you don't want to forget, add them in. 

    Last, but certainly not least, spruce up the outline with anything you don't want to forget while writing. Maybe you're writing the post right away -- or maybe you won't have time to actually start for a few more days. Regardless, having these details in your outline will make sure you're not missing a thing. I do this often if I think of a terrible pun or pop culture reference while outlining ... and trust me, that's something I definitely wouldn't want to forget. ;)

    Here's my final outline: 

    1. Intro
    2. Crafting a Twitter Image Lead Gen Strategy
      • How to generate a lead on Twitter
      • How lead generation fits in with the rest of your Twitter strategy
        • Reference Anchorman line: "Come and see how good I look."
    3. How to Create the Perfect Lead Gen Tweet
      • How to choose the right image
        • Creating it on your own 
        • Finding images to use legally
      • Optimizing the image for Twitter
      • Optimizing the rest of your tweet
        • How long the tweet should be with the image in
    4. Measuring Your Strategy's Success
      • Which metrics to look at
      • How to find them in your analytics
      • How to adjust your strategy to get better results

    And that's it! Once you have a solid outline, writing the actual post should be a breeze. 

    Do you outline your posts before writing? What else do you include?

                                         

    Written by Ginny Soskey

    Ginny Soskey is the Section Editor for HubSpot's Marketing Blog, which means she spends most of her days editing and writing, and helping others do the same. Say hey to her on Twitter @gsosk.

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