What makes a blog post bad?
There are lots of reasons a blog post could be less-than-perfect. Poor formatting. Poor grammar. Poor word choice. Poor shareability.
The most pervasive problem? Poor flow. The post jumps from one idea to the next to the next and then circles around again for a split second to the first idea, then back to the fourth, and so on. Or the post reads like a stream of consciousness — but it wasn’t a stylistic choice.
Luckily, you have a simple solution. Before diving headfirst into writing your post, you can create an outline.
I’m not talking about jotting down a few quick bullet points — even experienced writers can go astray with just a few talking points. I’m talking a fully fleshed-out outline with enough details that make it virtually impossible for your writing to go off the deep end. And it’s pretty easy to do.
Below is my method for outlining posts and organizing my thoughts. You may prefer to switch up some of the steps depending on your writing style, but your end goal should always be to get an outline detailed enough that its result is a cohesive, logical piece. Here’s one way you can do that.
This is the most important step of this entire process. You want to have a clear understanding of what you’re going to write before you start outlining.
My colleague Corey wrote an awesome post about how to pick a great working title. Go read it, now. I won’t go too much into the weeds here (that’s why you should read her post), but a great working title is specific. It’s “How to Use Images to Generate Leads on Twitter,” not ” Twitter lead generation.”
Spend time getting your working title to something specific and easy to tackle in a blog post format — but don’t waste time getting nitpicky. You can refine your title later. The goal here is to have a title that gives you a very clear idea of what the whole piece is about. You can make it sound catchy later.
Next, you get to brain dump. Write down all the things you want your readers to get out of the article. These won’t always be the main sections of your article — it’s just all the things you want your readers to know by the end of reading your post.
This is the only time in the whole process you’re not worried about organization — just let your ideas flow naturally. You need to get out all of your wild and crazy ideas now so they won’t muck up your post later in the process.
Let’s use the previous example to show you what I mean. If my working title was “How to Use Images to Generate Leads on Twitter,” I’d probably want readers to know:
Notice how these are really unfiltered and all over the place. That’s okay. We’ll wrangle it all in in the next step.
Now, we’ll take that jumble of ideas and place them into overarching sections. Think of it like sorting laundry — each thought belongs to a different pile. From your brainstorm, you should come up with a few big themes. Sometimes, one of your brainstorming bullets will be a theme in itself, but usually several bullets will fall under one overarching theme. You may also realize that there’s a theme that you may not have any bullets for, but the post definitely calls for it.
Lots of people recommend sticking to 3-4 larger sections, but it really depends on what type of post you’re writing. If you’re writing something that’s long and comprehensive, you might need more. If it’s a quick post, fewer sections would be ideal. But if you need a benchmark, 3-4 sections are fine.
So if we’re writing that post about generating leads on Twitter using images, we’d bucket my ideas into the following buckets:
At this point, you should have a pretty weird looking outline. Mine is. Some sections have lots of little bullet points, others have only a few, and others have nothing.
Now’s the time to fill in the holes. What did you miss in your initial brainstorm? Thinking about what’s missing is always hard, but it will help improve your final post significantly.
Don’t forget to beef up your intro here, too. Have a great point you think would set the stage for the article? Add a little reminder below that section so you don’t forget it.
Below shows how my outline’s evolved. I italicized all the things I added, and the outline is becoming closer and closer to being a post:
Essentially, you’re re-doing the second step, but in a more controlled, organized manner.
Now comes the fun part: editing your outline. You’ve already done the hard part of actually thinking of your ideas. Now, you’re tightening up your outline to include only the most relevant information, revising the sub-bullets to actually make sense, and reorganizing the sub-bullets to tell the most logical story.
First, let me show you what I’d cut — shown in bold.
I cut things usually because the sub-bullet didn’t add value to the post or the reader would already know it. That’s a pretty good benchmark to remember if you’re not sure whether to cut something.
Next, we’ll reorganize the remainder of the sub-bullets and rework them to sound like actual takeaways. We’ll also turn some of the sub-bullets into sub-sub-bullets. Here’s what this outline looks like now:
Ta-da! A much more comprehensive outline that makes your post easy to write.
This is purely a time-saving trick. After you’ve fully fleshed out and then trimmed your outline, you should look for examples and data to support these claims. Once you find a source to support your arguments, just add them as a note underneath the section — that way, when you go to write it, it’s all organized for you.
Last, but certainly not least, spruce up the outline with anything you don’t want to forget while writing. Maybe you’re writing the post right away — or maybe you won’t have time to actually start for a few more days. Regardless, having these details in your outline will make sure you’re not missing a thing. I do this often if I think of a terrible pun or pop culture reference while outlining … and trust me, that’s something I definitely wouldn’t want to forget. 😉
Here’s my final outline:
And that’s it! Feel free to take that methodology and apply it to other types of posts. Once you have a solid outline, writing the actual post should be a breeze. It’s even easier if you work from a template.
Editor’s note: This post was originally published in May 2014 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.