Outline your writing to ease the creative process

For most of my career I’ve been a software developer, but now I’m mostly a communicator. As a manager, I give the right level of detail to many different audiences, and I deliver that in words they can understand. As a Developer Advocate, I explain complex technical concepts in useful, memorable, and occasionally entertaining ways. However the best software developers are lazy and I’m still always looking for ways to get things done with less effort on my part! For writing, the best process I know feels like unnecessary overhead, but it’s always worth it in the end so today I’m sharing my secrets: create an outline before you start.

Why outline your writing

With an outline, you can tell before you’ve started whether you:

  • understand the topic
  • can get your points into a coherent order
  • know what’s in scope
  • need to fill in any gaps before writing

If, like me, you get interrupted while you’re working, the outline also means that you don’t need to hold a grand plan in your head. The structure is laid out before you start, making it easier to stay on track with your train of thought even if you are jumping in and out of this task among other activities.

If you had the sort of education where you were taught to create an essay plan before writing, you already have the skills you need for outlining. If not, I’m about to tell you how to do it anyway, so keep reading.

How to create an outline

Think about who you are writing for, and what they need to know. Then write a list of 4-6 subheadings that cover the main points. If you need more points than this (do you, really?) then nesting levels of subheadings can also help, especially if it’s a longer document.

That’s literally it. You created an outline!

Sometimes the outline needs quite a lot of work but this early stage is the best possible time to do it. It’s much easier now to run the idea past someone else for their input, or to reflect on whether you could move one section to a separate document and just reference it, than it will be once all the words are there getting in the way.

When to use outlines

Try using outlines on everything that’s more than two paragraphs long, and see what sticks! This approach works for me when I’m working on everything from difficult emails to documentation, from blog posts to project updates. I create outlines when I’m writing conference talks too, something about the pre-planned structure gives a nice cadence to the different sections of the talk or written piece when it’s finished. Almost as if there had been some sort of plan at the start!

The hardest part of writing outlines is just like the hardest part of writing specifications for software: I’d rather be writing the words/code! The outline always saves time in the end, and makes me really think hard about the overall aims of the thing before I put pen to paper and start wondering if my sentences are too long. For this lazy software developer, the best process is the one that gets the task done soonest, and outlines always win.

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