Monday, 24 January 2011

Outlining the Outline

I was marking an assignment over the weekend, when I came across one student who was having difficulty outlining the article she wanted to write. In the end she'd skipped this bit and written her article. However, she hadn't. She admitted it had taken her three attempts to finish it.

When we get an idea, the urge to write the article can overwhelm us. Don't! It's important that you have a clear idea as to whom you are writing it for. You need to know your target market and therefore, your readership. Only then can you begin to angle your idea to make it of interest to your intended readers.

If you're unsure as to whom you want to target, think a bit more about your idea. What is it that you want to say? What do you want readers to learn from your article? This may help you to identify who your idea is aimed at.

For example, if you have an idea about how to take better photographs, what are your tips going to be? Will they be tips that a professional photographer will use, or those that a family member might use when snapping their children playing? Get this clear in your mind, and you can then start searching for magazines that these readers might buy.

When it comes to outlining the article, think about everything that you want to say. Forget about a beginning, a middle and an end for the moment, just jot down everything you feel is important at the moment. What are those tips? List them. List every one of them. (The last thing you want to do is forget one of them!)

If you need to do some research, then think about the questions your reader would ask:
  • Do I need a special camera?
  • Do I need a special lens?
  • What are the benefits of having a tripod?
  • How should I frame my picture?
And so on.

When you've listed all of your tips, or questions, start playing about with their order. Sometimes you might find that one particular question more naturally follows after one further down. Or perhaps, for a reader to understand one tip, they need to comprehend another tip earlier.

Do this, and you'll slowly begin to produce your article's outline. This may be infuriating when all you want to do is get down and start writing, but it will help you in the end. It will enable you to produce a more coherent article.

Outlining can be difficult when you get started, so a useful tip is to create an outline from an existing published article. Sit down and read the article in full. Then read it again, but this time, summarise each paragraph in one sentence. Then on the next line, write a sentence that summarises the next paragraph. Do this for the whole article and you'll produce a basic outline. If you can, try this technique with different articles from different magazines and you'll start to see a pattern which you can use in your own pieces.

Outlines are worth it, because they make your articles stronger, well-argued and more entertaining for the reader.

Good luck!


  1. My trouble is keeping the outline succinct (i.e. under a certain number of words) while at the same time getting my idea across. I've found it very much depends on the style of the article - such as the difference between a how-to and a more reflective piece.

  2. Hi Lucy

    You can always edit an outline down later - at least you produce something! If your outline is just for you, then length isn't as important as when you're producing the outline as a potential sales pitch.

    I agree though, that outlines differ depending upon the style of the piece - that's why it's useful to create outlines of existing published pieces to see how they vary.


  3. Very useful advice, as ever. Thanks.

  4. I have neglected my WB course since, I'm ashamed to say it, assignment 6!

    Woefully crap at keeping going when I have to do something I didn't choose to do. Assignment 6 was about travel writing and I'm desperate to get onto short stories.

    Your advice has started me thinking about it again. Thanks Simon.

  5. You can always edit an outline down later - at least you produce something! If your outline is just for you, then length isn't as important as when you're producing the outline as a potential sales pitch.
    live cricket streaming