Ever read a post that was all jumbly and felt like a piece of IKEA furniture assembled by someone who was holding the instructions upside down and only reading every second page?
Well, this is exactly what happens if someone tried writing a blog post without crafting an outline first. A blog outline is essentially a document that covers the key points of your post in the form of a bulleted list. It also includes other information such as the CTA, quotes, links, and an approximate word count for every section of your article or blog post.
“But isn’t blogging all about creativity and letting your thoughts flow freely?”
For some bloggers and some types of posts, it is – let’s say you’re an amateur blogger who’s simply telling a personal story. But effective blog content – you know, the kind that builds traffic and engagement and (gasp) drives sales – needs an outline.
But why do you need to write outlines for blog posts?
Outlines make three things easier: writing a blog post, reading it, and having it rank for your favorite keyword.
Outlines help you stick to the search intent
Most people use Google to find useful information, not browse through random pages that pop up on the results page. That is, people have a specific search intent. How to write a blog outline? Which shoes should I buy? Should I use Google Docs or Microsoft Office for my work?
Ideally, each blog post only answers one big question and focuses on one big topic. Even if it’s a 6000-word post titled “The Ultimate Guide To Keeping Chickens: 56 Tips”, it still has an overarching theme: how to keep chickens.
But let’s be honest: it’s very, very hard to stick to the One Thing if you’re just typing away paragraph after paragraph as sentences are forming in your mind. It’s way too easy to get distracted and end up with content that covers too many topics. This is bad for SEO and for human readers as well. Let’s say you googled “how to write a blog post outline” and, all of a sudden, you’re forced to read a lengthy rant about word processing software.
In short: your readers will definitely prefer blog posts that grew out of a well-planned outline. Blog posts that answer their questions and help them solve their problems without overwhelming them with additional information.
Outlines help you write great posts easily
But outlining also helps you as a writer. Trying to write without an outline is like trying to build a house without having a floor plan.
You can start putting some bricks on top of each other, but it’s unlikely to result in a beautiful and functional home, and even if you manage to build something, you’ll probably have to redo it several times. It’s much easier to rework and improve a floor plan than an actual building – and it’s the same with blog posts.
In addition to this: if your business is growing so fast that you’d like to outsource some of the writing, you’ll need to provide the entire writing team with detailed outlines to make sure that everyone’s on the same page and working along the same guidelines. Otherwise, you risk wasting your (and your writers’ time) on unnecessary revisions that could have been prevented in the first place.
Getting ready to outline a blog post
Outlining builds on the previous steps of your writing process, namely research and brainstorming (though some writers enjoy researching, brainstorming and outlining at the same time, I prefer to keep these steps separate).
For outlining, you’ll need your research document with the results of your keyword analysis and an overview of at least 5 competing pages. I use Surfer SEO to do all the math that belongs to the research phase, and I strongly suggest you invest in a paid SEO tool as well, especially if you’re a full-time blogger or a serious freelancer who seeks to provide the best possible SEO writing services.
I also suggest that you take a look at some copywriting formulas that are good for writing long-form content as well. Learn more about formulas here: “3 Copywriting Mistakes That 90% Of Beginners Are Probably Guilty Of“.
And you’ll also need the results of your brainstorming session – either as a hand-drawn mind map or something you’re created in a mind mapping app. Now you’re going to take all those ideas you’ve brainstormed and align them into a nice coherent outline. As Julie Neidlinger put it, “with outlining, you are wrangling that broad brainstorming swath into a linear path”.
Last but not least, you’ll need a software tool for your outline. I simply make a bulleted list in Google Docs because I’m also using the Surfer extension for Chrome to guide me in my outlining process, but there are dedicated apps for bulleted lists. Another tool I would recommend is Airstory, an excellent app for organizing your entire writing process from research to publication. Its drag-and-drop approach to creating outlines really beats everything else I’ve seen.
So… how do you write a blog post outline?
Here’s a simple, actionable 6-step process that you can use to create a blog post outline. You’ll also find an outline template at the end of this post.
Come up with a working title
Here’s your first step: come up with a working title that reflects the search intent and the main keyword. It doesn’t have to be your final headline – you can come up with something basic and refine it later.
If you’re all out of ideas, explore your competitors’ headlines or use a headline generator like the ones offered by Headlime or Hubspot. For example, “How to write a blog post outline” could be turned into:
Or you can keep your working title because sometimes simpler is better.
Identify key takeaways and the CTA
What do you want your reader to know after reading your blog post? What do you want them to do? Here are some examples (in no particular order):
- Discover a 3-step ritual for entering the flow state
- Estimate their caloric needs with the Benedict-Harris formula
- Know how to write a post outline for their personal or business blog
- Download a printable exercise plan
- Sign up for a newsletter
- Make a purchase
Ideally, each blog post has one call to action and up to 3-4 key points. If you notice that your post is going to have too many takeaways, it’s better to split it into two or more posts and create a content cluster that will showcase your expertise and boost your rankings without overwhelming your readers.
Taking the time to identify your key points and your CTA can sound like a lot of extra work, but they’re what gives your blog post a sense of direction and a clear purpose.
Invent some subheadings
It’s good to base your subheadings on your key takeaways and relevant keywords. They don’t have to be fancy. In fact, you should avoid uber-creative subheadings when writing your blog post.
Remember that at least 43% of people skim blog posts instead of really reading them, so they expect to know what a subsection is about simply by looking at its heading. If they stumble on a highly cryptic subheading, they might even hit the “back” button because they don’t want to spend time on figuring out what you meant.
In addition to that, Google uses your subheadings to understand what your post is all about and how it’s structured. The lack of a clear structure can take a serious toll on your rankings. On the other hand, a well-structured system of subheadings can even win you a featured snippet.
The screenshot shows the heading structure of a blog post, as displayed in Surfer SEO. You can see that the subheadings are all pretty straightforward and easy to follow so both human readers and Google bots know what the article is about.
Fill your subheadings with brainstormed items
Now is the time to come back to your highly creative mind map you created before, in the brainstorming step, and arrange the items under the subheadings. When you see smaller topic clusters forming in a H2 section, create several third-level subheadings or bullet points.
It’s also the time to open the research documents and paste the quotes and stats and links under the respective sections. This sounds like extra work, but you’ll be grateful for it when you write: few things are as annoying as trying to find a particular statistic when you’re in the midst of writing flow.
When you’ve converted your sprawling mind map into a more or less linear structure and a coherent sequence of bullet points, the next step will be all about adding extra information that you’ve realized is missing.
Fill gaps in your brainstorming and research
Does a section look ridiculously short when compared to other parts of your outline?
Do you feel that you need more data and ideas to support your key points?
Do you notice a content gap that needs to be filled?
Well, now’s the time to take your outline from good to great and fill in any gaps you’ve identified. Make sure the ideas you’re adding don’t disrupt the overall flow of the article and don’t distract from the key takeaways.
Trim sections that don’t fit
Every writer knows the awkward moment when you’ve written tons of content but then you realize it doesn’t really fit.
Well, do not despair.
When you’ve written more than necessary, you’ve essentially planted the seeds for a few additional posts that provide an in-depth perspective on your topic. This group of related posts is called a content cluster and yes, every great blog uses clusters to structure the content, guide the readers, and rise high in the search engine rankings.
After this step, your outline is basically done. You may add extra information such as word count or other things you may need to include, especially if you’re writing an outline for someone else.
Now, your blog post outline is ready and you can start writing. Make sure you take a well-deserved break between outlining and writing unless you want to burn out anytime soon!
Writing a blog outline can take quite a bit of time if you’ve never done it before, but with some practice, you’ll be able to craft a simple outline in as little as 5 minutes.
Get my free blog post outline template
If writing a blog post outline sounds like an overwhelming task, don’t worry. I’ve made a free outline template for you to use – just click here and enjoy. It’s an editable Google Doc so you can easily save a copy and use it for your own blog posts straight away.