How to write a blog post outline: A step-by-step guide
Most weeks, I’m whipping out 9,000+ words for my clients. I’m only able to do that now because I’ve increased my writing efficiency and minimized the number of edits my clients need. Outlines are my number #1 secret in both those departments.
Outlines help you beat the blank page syndrome
Every writer knows the feeling of opening a Google Doc, staring at the blank page, and feeling like deer in headlights. Daunted, you start to sweat, “research” on Twitter, clean your bookshelf, and rearrange your desk. Been there, done that.
I’m a huge fan of outlines! The fear of the blank page is real–I find it intimidating to jump straight into writing. Outlining reduces pressure because I can just start with bullet points. Then it’s just a matter of turning them into paragraphs 🙂
— Elise Dopson (@elisedopson) February 8, 2022
Outlines get you and your editor on the same page
Creating a detailed outline gives the client—and me—a fair idea of what sections we’re going after, what elements we’re including or omitting, and a general overarching view of the whole piece.
At this point, I create an outline even for the clients who don’t necessarily require it. The result? Almost all of my clients need just a single round of edits—or better, they need none at all.
“The guilt I feel when I review a draft and it needs a huge overhaul is massive. I’d much rather tell someone it’s not going to work out after they’ve spent an hour on an outline than make them do hours of edits after they’ve already spent even more hours writing the article.“
How do you write an outline for a blog?
So how do you make a detailed outline without burning hours? Before we dive in, let’s be clear: you probably don’t need to go as in-depth as I do. Case in point: this is what my outline looked like for the second point of this article.
I include relevant images, keywords, internal links, headings, and stats at the outline stage itself—and I write in full sentences when they come to me. Do you want to write sentence fragments instead of complete sentences? Works. Prefer to add images once the draft is ready? Works just as well.
Do some trial-and-error testing to see what works for you. Opt for whatever makes the process easier for you and your editor. For example, I focus on outlining as quickly as possible when I’m working with a new client. But once we get the hang of working together, I opt for doing most of the work in the outline—even if it’s a little time-consuming—to make the process quicker while writing.
Step 1: Build out your sections
I keep the content brief handy while mapping out my outline. The brief includes a summary of the post’s objective, client notes about formatting and tone, SEO requirements, due dates, call-to-action, and any other important information required to nail the assignment.
I use this content brief as my guidepost to create the outline. I build out what sections I think the article should have based on the post’s goals and SEO needs. It usually looks like this:
My outlines are nearly drafts sometimes 🤭 I include h2s with bullet lists with data, concepts to cover, examples, quotes, images, and internal/external links. All that’s left are the intro and conclusion. Writing only takes me an hour, if that (I’m pro “pretty first draft”)
— Saphia Lanier 🦄 (@SaphiaLanier) February 8, 2022
Step 2: Dive into section 1
After having my basic elements laid out, I skip past the introduction and dive into section one. Intros are often daunting for me (so much pressure to be captivating!), and I usually write them better once I’ve flown to the deep end of the assignment.
Section one of most long-form pieces usually contains a big-picture view of the topic you’re writing about. For instance, while writing this blog post, the first section was about why detailed outlines are helpful, including subsections about specific benefits. Maybe it’s a definition or some historical context. Whatever it is, I add basic bullet points, any important data or quotes, and any other information I’ll be referencing within this section.
Step 3: Analyze top-ranking articles
The next step I take is analyzing the search intent of the article by exploring the top-ranking content on Google. I want to be sure the content I write resonates with the target audience and is optimized to rank organically.
Modify my sections (from step one) if anything seems unnecessary or misaligned. Maybe my headings don’t dive deep enough or are too complicated. Or maybe I need to cut back and write more straightforward content around the topic.
Find a unique angle that can add to the conversation. Instead of emulating the same sections and pointers, I try to find where I can provide additional value. Is it possible I have a different opinion than most of the articles on the first page? Can I include expert quotes to add authority to my argument?
Pro-tip: Also check the “People also ask” section aggregated by Google. It gathers the most commonly asked questions about the topic, is good for SEO, and gives additional ideas for sections and subsections.
Step 4: Add bullet point summaries under H2s
Sometimes, I’ll do a quick brain dump under each section and then research to back my arguments and erase the fluff. If you’re planning to interview experts or gather quotes, this stage is a good time to ask your network to give them enough lead time.
Step 5: Write the introduction and conclusion
I find it easier to write a compelling intro and useful outro once I have a solid outline. Maybe I found a unique angle that I want to highlight or there’s a story I want to begin with to hook the reader. Whatever it is, I add a few bullet points for the introduction and conclusion and move to the next step.
How to Write a Great Blogging Outline
Outlines in blogging are a little different than outlines when you’re writing an academic paper or something of the sort. You aren’t as rigidly constrained, and it’s more of a tool to help you organize your thoughts than it is some assignment you’re going to be graded on.
I’m going to write out a process here, but it’s not quite the process I use. My process is a little less structured, in part because I’ve internalized some of these steps and kind of just do them mentally while I’m composing the others. Here’s how I would help someone else do it, though.
0. Lay the groundwork for a solid post. The first thing you should do, which isn’t really part of the outlining process, is to set yourself up for success. What do I mean by this? In particular, this is where your keyword research, topic ideation, and reader persona analysis comes into play. You can write a blog outline about anything, but how do you know if the topic is worth writing about at all? You need to do the groundwork so you have a solid base from which to write, knowing that your content will have at least a baseline minimum amount of interest.
1. Step 1: Research what’s already out there. Some people consider this to be part of the groundwork, but I use it as the first step to composing my own outline. Virtually every possible topic you could want to write about has been written about before, by other blogs, possibly even your competitors.
- How are their posts structured? Is it an effective structure, or can you optimize it?
- What points are they making? Are you making similar points or different points? For example, there are a lot of other “how to write a blog post outline” posts out there, but I use a different process than they do.
- Are they including data or sources you didn’t find? By supplementing your own sources with sources you find through your competition, you can out-do their posts with your own.
- Do they mention anything that throws a wrench into the works for your posts? Occasionally I’ve come up with a topic idea and, upon researching it, found clear counter-evidence that makes my post just flat wrong. I have to either drop the topic or retool the post.
2. Figure out what your key points will be. I usually just write down the main points I want to cover in a big list as they come to me. The next step is to organize them, so don’t worry about it too much right now. Just get everything on the page, so you can see it, so you can read it, so you can use it to inspire further points.
Eventually, you’ll start to work this and the next couple of steps into one core process. You’ll configure your brain to start coming up with these ideas in a logical fashion and you won’t have to do as much reorganization. Still, though, this part of the process helps primarily to spot gaps in what you’re covering, to write down important points you might otherwise forget, and to include salient links you absolutely need to include in your finished post.
3. Organize your points in a logical fashion. Once you have your big list of points and pieces of information, start to organize them. I tend to do this naturally while I’m writing them down, but there’s always a few I want to move around.
During your initial brainstorming, it’s not unusual for several of your points to end up sub-points for other points. You’ll end up with what is basically a partial outline; some main topics, some sub-topics, room for another main topic or two, possibly even a few bits you want to cut because they aren’t that relevant.
While you’re going through this, think about questions you might want to ask to expand sections. More importantly, think about what questions your readers might have as they’re reading through. Are there points they have answered later, or is it something you should include more information to cover? This is your best chance to add major points and nail down the overall structure of your post.
4. Break down each point into key facts, conclusions, or arguments. Every subheading should have several points it covers. I like to aim for 2-3 on average, but sometimes they expand and get away from me. Larger or more complex subheads might be an ideal opportunity to add in a bulleted list, for example. I also tend to seed in a topic or two that I don’t intend to cover, but which can form the basis for a good internal link.
Do You Really Need a Blog Post Outline?
Sometimes it’s genuinely easier to just start writing without a clear plan of action—or blog post outline to inform on your direction—if the topic you’re covering doesn’t need to follow a particular structure, including supporting research, or if you’re writing purely from your own thoughts and experience.
Yes, it takes a little extra time up front to write an outline, but I find I always save myself a lot of time in potential edits and rewrites I’d otherwise avoid by critically thinking through an outline first.
By using this process to outline your blog posts, you’ll be able to tell whether or not your content is strong, and if it will actually be helpful to your readers (before you start writing the article itself).
Want to grab my free blog post outline template (in the form of a copy & paste Google Doc)? You can pick it up right here—in a document that includes my entire writing checklist and a fully completed blog post outline template to guide you along the way—get my free blog post template.
Want My Free Blog Post Outline Template?
Hi I’m Ryan Robinson
Full-time blogger, podcaster and side project aficionado. Join me here, on ryrob.com to learn how to start a blog, make money blogging and grow a profitable side business. I also write for publications like Fast Company, Forbes, Entrepreneur, Inc, Business Insider and more. Let’s chat on Twitter about business and side projects.