7 Steps to a Great Topic Outline

Creating a solid topic outline can be difficult, even if you’re familiar with the writing process.

There’s a reason for that. Topic outlines ask you to put a finer point on your ideas. That can be tough, especially if you find writing difficult. Even so, strong writing skills are something employers want. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, 82% of employers are looking for evidence of strong, written communication skills on a resume.

If you’re all about big ideas and you’re not one for details, looking at a blank page and figuring out what steps to take can be an intimidating process. That kind of fear and uncertainty is a great way to psych yourself out of writing anything.

That’s where a topic outline comes in.

Below, you’ll find a few solid tips to help you create a solid outline for anything. You could do this for resumes, blog articles, or a novel (one chapter at a time). Some of this flies in the face of other tips and tricks that you’ll see out there, but trust me: This works.

Let’s get started.

1. Use a blank page for your topic outline.

It might sound obvious, but this is where a ton of people miss the boat. There are tons of hardware and software solutions out there that can help you transfer your ideas to a visual format.

Mind mapping software is a big one. Whiteboards and magic markers are another. I like both. Those tools have a place in the creative process — just like editing and rewriting.

But, for a topic outline, just ditch all that. If you’re at the stage where you’ve got a working idea, it’s time to take that information and put it on a page. Open up your favorite word processing application, and get ready to jot a few things down.

2. Begin your topic outline by adding your idea.

Okay, quick and easy: At the top of the page, just write out your idea. It doesn’t have to be fancy or pretty. It doesn’t even have to sound great.

When I started this article, my original title was, “Something About Helping People Outline Content Better.”

It took me a while to figure out how I wanted to write it, and what I wanted to say. But it all starts there. Jot your idea at the topic of the page. We’ll add everything else below it.

Also, for those of you who hate staring at a blank page, as soon as you get past this step, you’re not writing on a blank page anymore! I know that one sentence or two might not sound like much, but just a couple of lines to break the ice can make all the difference in the world.

3. Stay away from traditional outline structures.

You might be asking yourself if I’m going to tell you to follow a traditional outline structure. You know, the kind you learned when you were writing your high school research paper. It looks like this:

  1. Facts About Cows
    • They live on farms
    • They eat grass
    • They’re curious creatures

We’re not going to do that. Considering that 65% of people feel like the education system is stifling creativity, we’re going to do something a little more practical.

Stay away from traditional outlines for now. They have their place (when you’re writing your research paper and it’s part of your grade), but what we’re doing is more laid back than that.

Plus, when you’re finished with the topic outline you’re creating, you’ll be able to build it into an article without starting over again from scratch.

4. Sum up your main talking points into topic headings.

We still need to sum up our main talking points into categories. This is an important part of the process because we have to organize what we’re trying to say in a way that makes sense to readers. It’s much easier to do that while creating a topic outline than it is once the content is written.

But, if you’re not using a traditional outline structure, what should you use instead?

You can use pretty much anything for this, but I prefer using the headers inside the document. You can find them in the Styles Pane in Word, or along the top bar in Google Docs.

A sample topic outline shown in Microsoft Word.

Really, the whole point here is to make your summary talking points look different than your standard text. That’s it. You could put them in bold text — I did this for a number of years — or you could enlarge or change the fonts manually. Headers are the quickest and most efficient way to formalize your topic outline, though.

Looking at the image above, you can already see everything starting to come together.

5. Add a one- or two-sentence summary or lead-in below.

Once you’ve got your headers in place, add a sentence or two that you can use as a lead-in to talk about your topic. It’s important that you plug this sentence in here because it’s your jumping-on point when you actually start writing your document.

If you’d like to see an example of this, scroll up to the image in the previous section.

While this step isn’t 100% necessary, it can ease the transition between outlining and drafting because you’ve already got a starting point that you can work with. Rather than trying to conjure up strong transitional statements, the hard work is already done by the time you sit down to write.

You might have noticed by now that part of the reason I’m suggesting you create topic outlines like this is purely psychological. Not only does this outline force you to put things down on paper; it also provides a better understanding of the shape your content is going to take.

And that’s especially helpful for the next step: Research and sourcing.

6. Conduct research and add the sources to your topic outline.

No matter what type of content you’re trying to build, conducting research and citing your sources is essential to creating something that resonates and stays fresh for your target audience.

You can choose to be as thorough or as simplistic as you prefer when you’re sourcing your content. That’s a topic for a different article.

As far as outlines are concerned, I recommend finding a source you like and just pasting the link to that source — along with the stat, quote, or phrase that you’re interested in using — right into your content outline.

This is how I do it, and the reasoning is pretty straightforward. You haven’t written the content yet and you have no idea exactly how that source is going to fit with the rest of the piece. There’s no point in wasting time trying to make it pretty now. Just wait. Things will fall into place naturally.

Add any number of sources you like. When you’re ready right below your topic headings so that you have some idea of where they should go. When you’ve got everything together, it’s time to create a draft.

7. Start writing from your topic outline.

Back in 2016, Bloomberg reported that recruiters consider communication skills one of the most important things in a ton of industries. And we’re not talking about industries like media and broadcast. We’re talking about industries like chemicals, finance, pharmaceuticals, and manufacturing.

Being able to properly articulate your thoughts and ideas is an essential component of a successful career.

That’s why it’s important to remember that a topic outline like this is really meant to help you organize your thoughts before you start writing. That’s why it so flexible and loose.

If you’re happy with how your outline turned out, it’s time to start writing. You’ve got your sources and your lead-in lines ready to go. All you have to do is scroll back to the top of your page and get started.

But what if you’re not happy with your outline? That’s where things can get interesting.

If you’re not happy, it’s time to reevaluate your outline. Move things around. See if you can make better sense of your content before you start writing. Do you need additional sources? Do your topic headers flow logically from start to finish? Is there a component that you’re missing?

Keep working with your outline and, eventually, you’ll structure it in a way that makes sense. If you find yourself in this position, your topic outline did its job! It helped you fix underlying problems with your draft before you even wrote it.

Mission accomplished!

Going Beyond Outlines

Writing is a process. There’s no doubt about that. A strong topic outline is a good first step, but it’s not the only starting point.

If you’re a small business looking to build up your content profile or develop a powerful strategy around your online content, don’t hesitate to connect with me.