How to Write an Outline for a Post, An Ebook or Your Thesis Paper

How to Write an Outline for a Post, An Ebook or Your Thesis PaperI’ve recently written on how to write a good ebook. I’ve also made it quite clear that we are talking theoretical ebooks in general and not specific ebooks that might make themselves appear at Men with Pens for the mass public at any point in the immediate future.

Keeping this stipulation in mind, let us move forward and discuss an ever-critical aspect of ebooks, reports, and other documents long enough to get the organization of the thing confused: the outline.

Yes, I know. You probably all learned outlines in school, and I don’t mean to bring up any terrible memories for anyone, but it really is quite important and I promise to reference at least three funny and random things in the explanation, okay? Can we agree on three funny things? Five, you say? Let’s call it four.

Four it is. You drive a hard bargain. Much like a gypsy ironworker. (That’s one.)

Why You Need an Outline

Now, it’s sort of obvious why an outline would come in handy. If you’re writing about a lot of different sub-topics off of one main theme, it helps to put them in some kind of order so your reader feels like he or she follows your train of thought instead of getting shoved in the middle of a thirty-car pileup (that’s train cars, not car-cars. Stick with the metaphor).

Now, here’s the part that’s almost more fun than draping daisy chains over the heads of complete strangers (that’s two):

Most people, knowing that outlines are handy and useful and obvious, do not use them.

This is because it is widely known that anything obvious and useful must be easy to do away with. After all, everyone knows about these useful and obvious things, so clearly smart people don’t need them and can just skip right to the money-making part.

Sorry. I know we all want to be the geniuses who get to skip steps but unfortunately, that position has already been taken by my eleventh-grade physics teacher Mr. Rooney, who could go from zero to a quadratic equation that would boggle Einstein in his sockless shoes (that’s three) in no time flat.

Mr. Rooney can skip his outlines if he wants. You cannot.

How to Write an Outline

Theoretically we all know how to write an outline, but usually we do not actually know it insofar as execution is concerned. If a complete stranger walked up and asked, “Hey, do you know how to write an outline?” we would all snort derisively and say, “Of course.”

If, however, that person then handed you a piece of paper and a pen and asked you to outline your thoughts on any basic aspect of your regular life – let’s say, your household chores or the many annoying things your mother does around the holidays – you would probably be a little distressed. And embarrassed. You might also crave chocolate, but that’s probably unrelated (that’s four).

So here’s what you do:

Start with an empty Word .doc or sheet of paper.

Write down everything you can think of on the topic you’re about to write. You can do those brain cloud things if you want. Brain clouds involve writing a main topic, then circling it and branching lots of little topics off in their own bubbles to show that they’re connected. This is fine if you have some idea of your big topics. If you don’t, just free-form it. Write down everything you can think of, any and everything. Don’t worry about how it fits together.

Then make it fit together. Read the whole list and pick out the big umbrella topics. Make a nice, neat list of those and then list bullet points beneath those umbrella topics.

If you have leftover topics that don’t seem to fit anywhere, consider one of two possibilities: Either that sub-topic isn’t really that important, or you need a catch-all section at the end of your document for random things that don’t fit anywhere.

Both of these work. Some of the best ebooks have a random category at the end for things that are useful but not directly related to anything else. Don’t be ashamed of randomness.

There. You have your outline.

Next week, I’ll tell you how to get from one topic to the next without completely baffling your reader. It may contain more randomness. You never know.

Who else has fun ways to lay out a document?

Post by Taylor

Taylor Lindstrom (fondly known as Tei) is a twenty-something copywriter and journalist from Boulder, CO. She’s the team’s rogue woman who wowed us until our desire for her talents exceeded our desire for a good ol’ boys club. She loves the color green, micro-point Uniball pens, and medieval weaponry.

Join the Discussion. Click Here to Leave a Comment.

  1. Write down everything you can think of on the topic you’re about to write. You can do those brain cloud things if you want. Brain clouds involve writing a main topic, then circling it and branching lots of little topics off in their own bubbles to show that they’re connected. This is fine if you have some idea of your big topics. If you don’t, just free-form it. Write down everything you can think of, any and everything. Don’t worry about how it fits together.

  2. I prefer to use mind mapping rather than a list-style outline. Every time I’ve written a list outline I’ve totally ignored it afterwards. Mind maps work better for me (probably my ADD side coming out – they keep me entertained). I carry an unlined notepad and set of five colourful pens with me everywhere so I can write an outline whenever I think of something. I’ve even stood in the middle of a supermarket and scribbled a mind-map outline!

    For bigger projects, bigger than a blog post that is, I have a huge B3 sized poster pad and texta’s for writing on.

    This is what works for me. It’s the one thing I CAN’T do on a computer. There’s something about the colours and handwriting that captures my thoughts better than typing.
    .-= Melinda | WAHM Biz Builder´s last blog ..Managing Work Time Around Kids – Myth or Reality? =-.

  3. The method you use to outline depends on how you best work. Some people are more visual, so mind mapping would work, while others are more linear. I use a combination of both. I start off mind mapping and then turn it into an outline. Great post!
    .-= Shevonne´s last blog ..Write 1,000 Words a Day, No Matter What =-.

  4. Do whatever works for you to get a good outline. I typically chunk related ideas together for the initial outline, and then I put items in final order.

    A good outline is the key to writing well and quickly.
    .-= John Soares´s last blog ..Payment Schedules for College Textbook Supplements and Ancillaries =-.

  5. Good points!

    I’m currently trying to encourage my kids to use outlines when they write.

    (Yes, as the “writer” in the family I get stuck helping with all the writing assignments. If you don’t have kids yet, beware of this. It will happen.)

    Recently, after reviewing a particularly bad assignment from one of them I said “bring me your outline” knowing full well there was no outline. Of course, being the independent sort she hastily scratched down a few lines on an envelope and tried to claim it as the “outline” she had developed her paper from. I wasn’t buying, though.

    Some sort of organization is definitely crucial to writing (and really, all other forms of communication).

    Thanks for highlighting this fact, which seems obvious, but isn’t applied nearly often enough.
    .-= Laura Spencer´s last blog ..Working Under Fire — Do You Like Stress, or Not? =-.

  6. I recently started using Todoodlist from Nick Chernis at Put Things Off. I’ve always been a gadget person, but this simple return to pencil and paper and big but simple visual diagrams has really changed the way I do things.

    Having said that…as far as my own writing, I find that non-fiction usually requires an outline, fiction rarely. Maybe that’s why my non-fiction gets picked up and my fiction is a wonderful study in not getting anywhere:)

    Great post.
    .-= Josh Hanagarne´s last blog ..Book Review of Todoodlist. Also: Can You Handle My White Hot Dancing? =-.

  7. Great tips as usual, but I haven’t found a standard formula. Sometimes I just write and that’s the core and then make an outline. Often the outline evolves with the writing. In any case, the outline is important, which is what your point is.
    .-= Kaushik´s last blog ..Call off the Struggle =-.

  8. “I’ve also made it quite clear that we are talking theoretical ebooks in general and not specific ebooks that might make themselves appear at Men with Pens for the mass public at any point in the immediate future.”

    So… we aren’t going to be reading ‘Story of a Renegade: 80% of Canadians don’t marry but why I am bucking the trend’ by James Chartrand? Damn.

    As for the actual topic; I usually go by the random brainstorm approach. I write lots of unconnected sentences on a topic, look at them all, and arrange them into something useful. Then I look for good headings, then flesh them out.

    I also feel it is important to include at the start of an outline though an answer to the questions “Why am I writing this?” and “Who is my audience?”. Having these questions in mind at the very start helps to focus how the information should be presented, not just what information should be presented. Just so I don’t ramble on and on and then find I need to rewrite it all at the end…

  9. It’s great that your reminding me how to use an outline right before I go back to college. This was very humorous and hope to read more of your writings again soon. Ciao for now :)
    .-= John´s last blog ..Writings That Test Reality and Will =-.

  10. I have found the best method (for me) is a notepad, pen and a park or coffee shop!
    .-= Arthur Pledger´s last blog ..Ghetto Capitalism =-.

  11. @ John – Ah, see? You’ll be a great student now! 😉

    @ Patrick – Um… No.

    @ Kaushik – The problem with writing first and outlining after is that you end up wasting a bunch of time moving paragraphs around and trying to connect disjointed thoughts.

    @ Josh – Todoodlist! Big fans, here!

    @ Laura – “Thanks for highlighting this fact, which seems obvious, but isn’t applied nearly often enough.” Yes. Oh yes. Not nearly enough. You do it really well, though!

    @ John – Bingo. Having a flow to follow speeds things up – and makes for a better overall read.

    @ Shevonne – New faces! Good to see you here. And yes, you’re right; we each have our own methods. That doesn’t necessarily mean we each use the *best* methods, though…

    Now where’d I put my Todoodlist…

    @ Mel – You made me grin. Color coding is the savior of ADD. So are lists. So is organization. So is someone saying, “Do this now.” So are rewards. So is free-flow mind-mapping. So is someone saying, “No, that’s just splatter. Put them in order.”

    *takes out markers for Todoodlist…*
    .-= James Chartrand – Men with Pens´s last blog ..How to Write an Outline for a Post, An Ebook or Your Thesis Paper =-.

  12. Ok… promise will get back to making serious comments now. Promise. Taylor’s posts just have a non-serious effect on me.

  13. Wendi Kelly- Life's Little Inspirations says:

    I. Hate. Outlines.

    I KNOW I’m supposed to do them/ like them. ( Hate 3X5 notecards even worse. and by the way, if I was a man I wouldn’t wear neckties, and I don’t wear turtlenecks.)

    IF I had to do them in school, I wrote out the entire paper or story then went back and plugged in the outline to match it. That’s OK. It’s kind of like a test to see if you actually make any sense.

    It’s not exactly like I don’t have a sense of structure or an idea about what I want to do or say. It’s more like it brews in my head like a strong cup of tea and then I spill it on to the page when it’s done and I want the the fluid to be able to move around a bit if I don’t like where it lands. And put it more sugar..or dilute it..make it stronger..add a new flavor.

    Outlines. Nope. The minute I start them, my entire mind goes blamk. I just start writing freestyle and then rearrange it until I like what I have.
    .-= Wendi Kelly- Life’s Little Inspirations´s last blog ..Living Wide Awake =-.

  14. Taylor, great post.

    It is best to create the outline before publishing or submitting the ebook for a review. That way, if you have made some mistakes, or the topic doesn’t appeal to the reader – you don’t have to stress out about this, since you haven’t done any actual work yet.

    Igor
    .-= Igor Kheifets´s last blog ..Are You Ignoring The Most CRUCIAL Part of Your Sales Letter? =-.

  15. Okay, FIRST of all, why isn’t THAT picture my profile pic? Seriously. That is some dope dopeness, and I wants it.

    Second of all, I like that no one actually uses an outline-outline, but that everyone seems to have found a system that serves the same basic purpose, and is slightly more structured than just splooging all over the page. This gives me hope for both our ingenuity as a human race and our ability to absorb things that are not sunblock or booze.

    Thirdly, Wendi is clearly a deviant.

    Fourthly, garlic bagels are delicious, albeit smelly.

    And fifthly, carry on, everyone. Carry on.
    .-= Tei Lindstrom – Men with Pens´s last undefined ..If you register your site for free at =-.

  16. @Tei – lovely profile pic, indeed. For some work I am doing for James, he gave me a dominatrix avatar …. hmmmmm

    @Patrick – if James marries anyone, it will be me. You can link that to my comment to dominatrixes if you wish. :-)
    .-= Eliza´s last blog ..Keeping osteopororis at bay =-.

  17. Yeah – those cloud ‘thing-ies’ work wonders.
    .-= Laura Cross´s last blog ..Framing the Narrative Nonfiction Story =-.

  18. Interesting Eliza, though I think the joke that started in Taylor’s last E-Book post comments thread has run its course now. :)

    And Tei I’ve never tried a Garlic Bagel.

  19. @Patrick – Jamie-boy getting married will always be a joke.

    I’m KIDDING, Jamie. I’m kidding. I love you. Marry me!
    .-= Tei Lindstrom – Men with Pens´s last undefined ..If you register your site for free at =-.

  20. @Patrick – which forces me to admit that I did not read Tei’s first eBook post to know that it was a carry-over joke. *sheepish grin*
    .-= Eliza´s last blog ..Keeping osteopororis at bay =-.

  21. Outlining is so important, but you’re right — people don’t want to do it. I don’t know why. It makes my life so much easier, and really doesn’t take up much extra time at all. Plus, when I get a fantastic idea for a headline, I like to ensure I have enough sub-topics to write about before I begin.
    .-= Suzannah-Write It Sideways´s last blog ..Guest Post at Write To Done =-.

  22. Hey Taylor, thanks for the insight. I will be begin writing a thesis soon, so this info definitely helps!

    Cheers,

    Chris
    .-= Chris from AB Web Design, LLC´s last blog ..How To Write Good Blog Comments (And Get Them Accepted) =-.

  23. Hey Taylor, thanks for the insight. I will be writing a thesis soon, so this info definitely helps!

    Cheers,

    Chris
    .-= Chris from AB Web Design, LLC´s last blog ..How To Write Good Blog Comments (And Get Them Accepted) =-.

  24. Ling live cloud-thingees!

    I’m not a cloud-thingee type person myself – I much prefer structured outlines. But I can see how they are helpful for folks with other learning styles besides my own.
    .-= Barbara Ling, Virtual Coach´s last blog ..False Profits – Why you should NEVER trust online income earning claims =-.

  25. They teach small children to use outlines to organize thoughts – really it is no different for adults. Outline provide structure.

  26. The really cool thing about outlines is they can make you actually feel like you’re accomplishing something when you’re too tired/blocked/self-loathing to to any real writing. I’ve had similar success with note cards.

    My personal preference is writing things on napkins, but just this weekend I actually jotted some ideas on hotel stationary. Okay, really it was a motel and more like a notepad, but it had a cool name: King Oscar’s.

    Spiral notebooks are cool too, but all the ones I have are jinxed because I’ve started failed projects in them, so I need new notebooks but at the same time feel bad about wasting the jinxed ones I already have.

    I’m planning to try brainstorming into a Word document because I’ve just about developed my ideas enough to start writing the dang thing and that’s just too big a committment to deal with just yet.
    .-= Terry Heath´s last blog ..How a Writer Can Justify a Twitter Addiction =-.

  27. I’d never take writing advice from someone who can’t even proofread their own work.

    “I’ve recently writing on how to write a good ebook. ”

    Dude.. work on writing one good sentence first.

  28. @ Kitty – Wow, thanks very much for being such an understanding person and gently pointing out an oh-so-human typo for us! I’ve corrected it now, and I’m glad to know you’re the type of individual that doesn’t hold people to absolute perfection, because we all know that doesn’t exist in this world.

    Unless I *totally* misunderstood your comment to be one of those nasty personal attack ones that we think are really crappy and immature. But that can’t be, right?

  29. I know that I’m late to the party (really, just had nothing to wear and it was raining and I didn’t really feel like the whole “being on time is a compliment to the host” vibe would work for me …..but I digest).
    I am loving this series of articles and for anyone else who arrives late (rude) you have to check out mywebspiration.com. It combines the best ADD parts of mindmapping with the stern task-master-esque virtues of the “The Outline” by converting your main points and sub-titles perfectly. And the best part is that it’s free. They even have some great templates (for website set up, thesis papers etc). E-books, blog posts even collaborations are so much better with this online tool. (Full disclosure: I don’t know anyone at the site and I have an account but it’s free so back off with your “what’s the catch” thinking. You know what? You don’t even deserve this cool tool so forget it if that’s going to be your attitude. Wow, some people! Show up late and bring this bad karma. Excuse me. I had to get that off of my chest)
    Thanks again for all of the fantastical work on this site and I will be saving my pennies to get a chance to work with you guys (which is why I have casually glanced just past the tip jar icon. Forgive me this please. Besides, I’m not sure that I’m sexy enough to tip anyway.

  30. “Most people, knowing that outlines are handy and useful and obvious, do not use them.”

    That is so me. I just want to save time by skipping the outline. I should use an outline though.

    Thanks for posting this article!

  31. This is a great article because no one trains to write an outline.. It looks very interesting..
    Thanks for hard work..

  32. Everything you explained made a lot of good sense. But, think about this, imagine you included a bit content? What i’m saying is, I shouldn’t inform you ways to run your web site, but imagine if you included something to perhaps get peoples attention? Just like a training video or perhaps a picture or two to get people excited about what you have to talk about. In my opinion, it might help make your website become more active somewhat.

Trackbacks

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  2. […] Tattoo Designs How to Blog Effectively Tips for Turning Unintended Traffic Into Ambassadors How to Write an Outline for a Post, An Ebook or Your Thesis Paper The Pomodoro Technique What to do when your design is stolen? 10 Ways to Generate Ideas for Web […]

  3. […] you write long blog posts, you might already be in the habit of outlining before you begin. With an ebook, this is crucial: you don’t want to write for hours only to find you’ve wandered […]

  4. […] you write long blog posts, you might already be in the habit of outlining before you begin. With an ebook, this is crucial: you don’t want to write for hours only to find you’ve wandered […]

  5. […] you write long blog posts, you might already be in the habit of outlining before you begin. With an ebook, this is crucial: you don’t want to write for hours only to find you’ve wandered […]

  6. Thirteen Steps to Write and Publish a Free Ebook In Thirteen Hours | BestBlogBuzz says:

    […] you write long blog posts, you might already be in the habit of outlining before you begin. With an ebook, this is crucial: you don’t want to write for hours only to find you’ve wandered […]

  7. […] you write long blog posts, you might already be in the habit of outlining before you begin. With an ebook, this is crucial: you don’t want to write for hours only to find you’ve wandered […]

  8. […] (Not that she’s involved in any ebook-related activities at all. Ignore the rumours.) […]

  9. […] you write long blog posts, you might already be in the habit of outlining before you begin. With an ebook, this is crucial: you don’t want to write for hours only to find you’ve wandered […]

  10. Devils Backyard » Blog Archive » Thirteen Steps to Write and Publish a Free Ebook In Thirteen Hours says:

    […] you write long blog posts, you might already be in the habit of outlining before you begin. With an ebook, this is crucial: you don’t want to write for hours only to find you’ve wandered […]

  11. […] you write long blog posts, you might already be in the habit of outlining before you begin. With an ebook, this is crucial: you don’t want to write for hours only to find you’ve wandered […]

  12. […] Pens is packed with helpful information. In this article from Taylor Lindstrom, we’re taught how to write an outline for a blog post or […]

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