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How to Outline a Blog Post (and Create a Hypnotic Flow)

Henrietta hypnotizes her dogYou’ve written your blog post.

You know what you want to say.

But will readers get your message?

You’ve chopped and changed the order of the paragraphs. You’ve polished each sentence.

After all that hard work, you’re still not sure whether your blog post flows along nicely. Will readers stumble over a paragraph? Or effortlessly glide through your text?

Creating a hypnotic flow doesn’t have to be so difficult.

Let’s have a look at the 2 methods to create content and evaluate flow.

Imagine cooking a celebratory feast

You have a delicious starter to prepare. Perhaps an amuse bouche, too. You have several main dishes that all need to get on the table at once. And then there’s dessert. Plus coffee, cognac, and chocolates.

Would you start cooking without a plan?

That would be disastrous wouldn’t it?

You know you need to plan in advance so your perfectly char-grilled steak doesn’t go cold while you’re preparing pepper sauce and steaming asparagus.

When you cook a festive meal, you avoid experimentation, follow trusted recipes, and implement a carefully thought-out plan.

So what do you do when you write?

Do you follow proven recipes?

Writing is, of course, not the same as cooking.

You can follow tried-and-tested blog recipes, or you can try a more experimental method. Whichever method you follow, you need to evaluate the flow of your blog post. To make sure your content is easy-to-read, engaging, and persuasive.

Let’s have a look at both writing methods.

Outlining a blog post first

Outlining a blog post is like following a proven recipe.

Before outlining, you brainstorm or mind map to consider what can be included in your post. You associate freely, considering related ideas. My favorite tools for brainstorming are pen and paper. I don’t like using mind-mapping software. I prefer scribbling.

Outlining means bringing structure to your scribbles. You decide which ideas you’ll cover, and which you’ll leave out. And you define a logical flow.

A common blog post outline covers the following points:

  • The opening paragraph describes what your post is about and why readers should make an effort to read it. How are you going to make them happier?
  • The main body of your blog post discusses the how–a series of tips or steps with or without examples.
  • The final paragraph includes a call-to-action, encouraging your reader to implement your advice.

When you review any of my blog posts, you’ll find a similar pattern: An opening, a list of tips (sometimes numbered, but often not), and a final paragraph that reminds you to take action.

Outlining a blog post helps you write faster. You already know what you should cover, and more importantly, you’ve already decided what to leave out. You avoid writing paragraphs you later need to scrap.

Your outline is your check list to evaluate whether you’ve covered all your points in the right order.

But I don’t always write an outline

Why not?

An outline feels restrictive.

A blog post is relatively short, and using an outline can strangle the flow of writing. Writing becomes more mechanical when you follow a strict outline. You don’t get an opportunity to wander off to discover new insights.

Freewriting temporarily forces [our internal] editor into a subservient role, so you can get to thoughts that are raw, truthful, and unusual. It’s from thoughts like these that big ideas are more likely to come. ~ Mark Levy (in: Accidental Genius)

When you freewrite your blog posts without an outline, you still have to ensure that your blog post follows a logical flow. That’s what the reverse-outline is for.

A reverse outline is an outline written after you’ve finished your post. Rather than using an outline to restrict your writing, you create an outline to check your flow. You list the key thought for each section (a series of short paragraphs below one subhead). Then you check: Do the key thoughts follow each other logically? Have you included any stray thoughts that can be removed?

How to get your message heard

What you write is as important as what you leave out.

Don’t distract your readers with funny asides if they are irrelevant. Don’t slow your readers down with your darling sentences if they don’t contribute to your argument.

Whether you outline or not, each blog post needs one key message. One big idea. One call-to-action.

Your blog post is good when you make your readers feel something, when you make them think, smile, or take action.

Whether you outline or not, doesn’t matter

Experiment. Try a hybrid approach.

Follow the process that works best for you.

What matters most is that you’re enjoying your writing process.

Because your readers notice it when you’re having fun.

Comments

  1. Enjoying what we do is the most important thing. If something becomes like a chore, then we need to re-evaluate what we do, why we are doing it in the first place, and etc. Having a basic outline or template does help, so we don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time (so to speak).
    I hope everything is going well with your projects, Henneke.
    Lucy Chen recently posted…Artist Palette RoundupMy Profile

    • Yes, I agree. Especially creative endeavors like writing or painting should be mostly fun (even though at times they may feel hard).

      Thank you for stopping by again, Lucy. Always good to see you. I hope everything is well with you, too.

  2. I always use outlines – they give me a path to follow. Not to mention, the assurance that I won’t reach the end of the post only to realize it’s too unfocused to publish.

    Love the “Why -> How -> What to do now” break up of your posts Henneke. I know exactly what I’ll get every time I read one of your posts :)
    Samar – Freelance Flyer recently posted…An Open Letter To Budding Freelance Writers EverywhereMy Profile

    • I sometimes wonder whether the “why -> how -> what to do now” becomes too predictable, but every time I try to venture from this path, I feel something is missing. So I each time go back to my formula – even when I freewrite :)

  3. I am definitely a free flow writer and love it.

    Deleting, rearranging and editing happen after I write.

    From June I will be doing idea mapping as I have decided to knowledge curate on topics and write longer posts with a vid, mp3 and an activity sheet so there’s more involved.
    Life Dreaming Liz recently posted…Let’s see if I can do this Challenge – 100 days. No Way.My Profile

    • It’s so interesting how everyone has their own preference.

      I freewrite when I’m stuck or when I’m excited to get something down on paper. I sometimes have an outline, and then abandon it when I start writing. And at other times I religiously stick to my outline.

      Thank you for stopping by, Liz

  4. Great post as always Henneke…thank you for sharing. My website is nearly there. Should launch, fingers crossed around mid May and thank you for asking. Until next time…
    Jeannette

  5. I tend to start with a rough outline on paper. A lot of times that outline will change a little as the article forms but I find it to be helpful to have an idea of how I view the structure of the final article before starting.
    Marc recently posted…101 Massively Useful Link Building IdeasMy Profile

    • Yes, I agree – it’s a good idea to keep an open mind and not stick to an outline religiously.

      Thank you for stopping by, Marc :)

  6. like the idea of writing the outline afterwards – excellent way to see if what you’re writing makes sense and what you can take out (that doesn’t make sense).
    daphne recently posted…how to run a business. authentically.My Profile

    • I’ve also used this technique to study other posts to see how they’re structured. It’s a good way to learn :)

      Good to see you again, Daphne!

  7. I am an outline Nazi. I. Love. Outlines.

    In addition to being a freelance copywriter, I’m also a full-time communications and philosophy instructor at the local college. I don’t think there’s one, full-on speaking or writing assignment in all the courses I teach that I don’t require a complete outline prior to the final speech being delivered or the final essay being submitted.

    Most student start out hating it… and end up just as much in love with the clarity and persuasive power of a well-built outline as I am.

    I use the same, traditional, three-part structure in EVERYTHING:

    I. Introduction – Tell ‘em what you’re going to tell ‘em (and hook ‘em first).
    II. Body – Tell ‘em.
    III. Conclusion (or CTA) – Tell ‘em what you told ‘em (and tell ‘em exactly what to do with it).

    And I totally agree with the other comments. I don’t stick to my outlines religiously… but I do force myself to update my outline before I update my posts. Disciplining myself to go back to the outline cuts down considerably on “fluff” and “rabbit trails.” Nothing helps me stick to the POINT more than an outline: before and during the writing process.

    Thanks for the outline love!

    • Yes, outlining definitely cuts down on fluff and rabbit trails, but I know good bloggers and writers who never outline. This may also depend on the experience of the writers.

      Ben Bova said about writing short stories:
      “for the short story, outlines can sometimes be a hindrance. (…) [m]ore often than not, a detailed outline of the plot stultifies the story.”

  8. I have found that a super loose outline works for me. It’s maybe 5-7 lines long and it is just something for me to refer to when I am writing so I don’t forget the main points that I wanted to talk about.
    Blake recently posted…Get A Virtual Mentor, Heck Get Two Virtual Mentors!My Profile

  9. Hi Henneke,

    This should be really helpful for many bloggers. Understanding what not to write is the most valuable tip. Those ideas can be saved for later, but an outline helps me make sure I’m delivering well on one single idea. I’m probably a hybrid kind of outliner.

    Cheers,
    Chris

    • Yep, blog posts often meander into too many directions, so cutting irrelevant sections is the first painful job of editing.

      When I wrote my books, I used a “parking lot” – parts I had to cut were parked here, and some of these sections I could re-use later on in other parts of the book.

      Good to see you again, Chris!

  10. Hi, Hennecke!
    We often have to drive long trips, and I often spend the time outlining. As I work in the car, I think, “This article will be so-o-o-o long!”
    But guess what! The outline helps me “write tight” as the say, and always makes a packed but short post that always gets a decent turnover.
    You are absolutely right!

    • Being on the move can help us be creative! I like brainstorming on the train or on my bike. When on my bike, however, I can’t write anything down.

      • Ha! Nor I, if husband asks me to drive! I think there is something about the rhythm of the movement, the bumps in the seams of the road, or something, that causes my mind to work in a structured way.
        Also the regularity of a schedule helps, of knowing every time we make this trip, I’ll have an hour to think. I’ve learned to relax and do so.
        Katharine recently posted…Homeschool Family Hit Hard…My Profile

  11. Thanks for the great advice once again Henneke. Thanks for breaking down the why – how – what to do now. I knew something was missing. It’s my call to action.
    I use mind maps to get me started. Working with an outline to begin the process quiets my creativity. When writing a manuscript I use a mind map and then an outline.

    Again, I appreciate your sage advice. When I received your email update today, I forbade myself from reading it as an incentive to get my other pressing work finished first.
    Kelly recently posted…6 Tips for Keeping Your Happy IntactMy Profile

    • Do you use pen and paper for your mind maps, too?

      I hope you got your other work finished before stopping by! ;-)

      • Yes – I love to use lots of colors as well. I have gone from an OMG I have nothing to write blank slate to overflowing with words to write using my colorful mind maps. Yes in fact, I got my 1st newsletter out the door today before coming to see what you were up to.
        Kelly recently posted…6 Tips for Keeping Your Happy IntactMy Profile

        • Congrats on publishing your first newsletter!

          I like the idea of using colors in mind mapping. I’ll have to try that. :)

  12. I’ve got personal journals dating back to my first decade of life. No surprise I fall into Camp B. Writing surprises me by showing me how much I know and what I really believe. When I’m done, I get to edit a full page of ideas rather than stare down a blank one. Quite often as many words litter the cutting-room floor as make it into the final post. That may not look like an efficient way to go about things, but I find it is. The leftovers don’t get the dustbin, but are added to my midden pile for future use. I have whole chunks at the ready when I need to pull out something…anything with a quick turn around date.

    • Have you ever tried outlining first? I find it can be helpful.

      • I grew up in a high school English classroom. Before I was out of grade school, I was enlisted to help grade papers. Everyone of her classes had an essay due each week on Friday with an outline submitted the previous Wednesday. Of course, it was the old school hamburger-style essay. When I got to college and realized there was a greater freedom in written expression, my outlining consisted of writing a working headline and subheads…which morphed in the various edits. That is still pretty much my process.

  13. Nick Marquet says:

    Hi Henneke, Great post and really relevant as I absolutely work to a template. I’ve just created a template adding to this including:
    Images
    Infographics
    Video

    I’d love to hear your thoughts on the posts promotion, eg newsletter (how I got it) Facebook (would you pay to get it to more of your likers) Pinterest (if you included an info graphic)

    Also love to hear if you research the keywords first before coming up with the title or if the title should be just the best title regardless of how it could rank later on Google…

    Nick

    • My main post promotion tool is my email list. But I’ll also share my post on Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn and Pinterest (if I remember). On Twitter I share a post three times over a 24-hour period. I don’t have a Facebook account, and if I had one, I wouldn’t consider paying for likes.

      I try to understand what readers are struggling with and how I can help. This usually generates specific topics that I can write about. I sometimes do keyword research to contribute to this process, but it’s not a key tool for generating blog post ideas – perhaps more for refining.

      My post titles are primarily written to grab attention and arouse curiosity to read the post. If it contains a specific keyphrase, then I might change the order of the words to ensure the key phrase appears in the first 55 characters.

      Glad you like the post, Nick :)

  14. Good subject.

    For short posts I never use an outline.
    For long posts: hardly ever ;-)
    For a book: yes. Always an outline.

    For a long post, the outline can sometimes consist of the subheaders.

    • Henneke says:

      Yes, for me an outline for a long-ish post often consists a list of subheads. Just gives enough sense of direction.

      Thank you for stopping by, Kitty! :)

  15. I wouldn’t miss a week – but sometimes I am overwhelmed by.. er.. work ;-)

  16. Nice post. My #1 goal is always just to get people to keep reading. Nothing else matters if you cant do that, right?

    P.S. love the “enchanting” comments :)
    ttyl,
    Rob
    Rob McNelis recently posted…Ain’t worried ’bout nothin’My Profile

    • Henneke says:

      Yep, agreed. Get people to start reading and then keep them reading. :)

      Thank you for stopping by!

  17. Hi Henneke

    I discovered you through Kissmetrics and I gotta admit, I am totally hooked. Love the illustrations, your brand voice, everything. Each and every post offers valuable, actionable advice. I cant even begin to express how much I hate woo woo, think-and-you-shall-achieve type of business advice.
    You are amazing!
    Bushra recently posted…Persuasion Rock Stars: 5 Ladies who are Totally Crushing Online PersuasionMy Profile

    • Henneke says:

      Thank you, Bushra. Yep, I hate the type of “advice” where people don’t really tell you anything, too. Thank you for stopping by!

  18. I think every writer has a different way of working, but the end result needs to be that the post flows. It’s rare in blogging advice for that to be acknowledged, so it’s fantastic that you do. Great analogy of cooking a meal. Thanks so much for an excellent post:-)
    A.K.Andrew recently posted…Kickstart Your #Flash Fiction With #PhotoFlashMy Profile

    • Henneke says:

      Yes, that’s true, and every writer has to find the way that works best for him or her.

      Good to see you again!

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