Once during a training session at the newspaper, I asked a senior editor whether he thought reporters should outline their stories. He agreed they probably should, but admitted that most don’t.
I have written before about the power of the outline. When you’re writing something as short as a news story or a blog post, it’s tempting to think you can do without an outline. But even if your outline is just five items on a Post-It note, or two items in your head, have one. It will help you stay focused. It makes the writing process simpler, because you know where you’re going. Here’s the outline for this post:
An outline provides a structure, a framework for building your post. Try to ensure you have a beginning, middle, and end, or as they say in the news business, a lead, body, and conclusion.
The purpose of the lead (in the news business it’s often spelled lede) is to hook the reader into reading the rest of the article. How you do this will vary depending on the type of article you’re doing.
There are several types of leads:
Anecdotal: Tell a story. This post opens with an anecdotal lead about my news days.
Informational: Use facts and figures, e.g., With 77 percent of its population living in poverty, Haiti is, by that measure, the poorest country in the world.
Tie-in: Connect your article to a current or upcoming event: e.g., In light of recent storm activity, many homeowners are in need of roof repair. Here are 10 things to consider when hiring a roofer.
Start big and narrow down: Look at a big national or even global issue (one or two sentences), then localize, e.g., The U.S. publishing business has been consolidated into five global companies, most of them based in Europe. But one local publisher…
Straight to the point: Online, more so than in print periodicals, you can simply make your premise statement and then get on with it, as I did in the first post in this series.
In the body of your article, you will make your main point or points. To keep blog posts short, minimize the number of points you make in each one. A single-point blog post is totally acceptable. In fact, almost every post Seth Godin writes makes a single point.
Here are some tips to make your writing more engaging:
Include compelling details. In his book Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, Roy Peter Clark discusses the importance of concrete details under the heading “Get the name of the dog.” Accounts of the execution of Mary Queen of Scots describe her terrier hiding under her skirt. The best accounts mention that the dog’s name was Geddon.
Introduce personalities readers can relate to. People love stories, and ultimately stories are about characters. Even if the character is a dog, he has a personality. This isn’t to say all your blog posts have to be about other people. Sometimes the personality that grabs the reader is the writer, e.g., Seth Godin.
Present information in logical order. It can be tempting to just dump the information from your brain and post it, but check your outline. If you didn’t have one when you started, could you reverse engineer one from the article you have? If you can, does it make sense? You may start out writing about an issue, then realize your newbie readers need an orientation, so you add it midway through. When you edit, move it to the top.
Use subheads. Especially if your article is longer than about 500 words, subheads will help break up the text and aid readability. And let’s face it, when we read online, we skim, so subheadings give readers a reason to stop skimming and start reading again. If you’re writing a numbered list post like “8 Ways Authors Can Use Goodreads to Promote Their Book,” each numbered item is a subheading.
Use bullet points. Consider whether any elements of your article can be expressed as bullet points. This is applicable in nonfiction book writing as well. Pretty much any time you have a list of more than four items, it can go into a bulleted list. But a bulleted list can have as few as three items. Use bulleted lists when it’s not important that the items be addressed in any particular order.
Use numbered lists. The difference between a bulleted list and a numbered list is one of order. Numbered lists are best used when steps need to be done in a particular order. Notice a numbered list is distinct from numbered subheadings, as mentioned above.
Use run-in headings. By bolding the introductory phrase of each paragraph in a series, you give the reader more points at which to stop skimming. In the Lead section of this post, I used run-in headings that are words or phrases followed by colons. In the Body section, I used run-in headings that are imperative sentences with periods. Each is fine for a different purpose. Make all the headings in a given segment the same format.
An informational article, especially a numbered list or a question and answer post, can just stop, like the Goodreads article cited above.
A how-to article can suggest a course of action, e.g., to learn more about designing your blog site, visit Copyblogger.
A personality profile should end on a note that captures the person well, maybe with a quote from them or from someone speaking about them.
A “circular” ending reflects back on the beginning. For example, if you opened with an anecdotal lead about the importance of outlining, you could close with a quote or comment or follow-up about outlining.
As I’ve said, an outline is not a constraint. It is a structure and a set of goals. It doesn’t hamper your creativity, it gives you a pathway to completion.
Disclosure of Material Connection: The Amazon link above is an affiliate link. This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive a pittance of a commission from Amazon. Regardless, I only recommend books I believe will be of value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”