Writing

What is a Content Outline and How Can You Write One?

Kevin Kessler
July 24, 2020
16 minutes

By organizing your thoughts, facts, and media while creating the skeleton of your article, you’re going to create better content that’s more informative, more organized, and easier to read.

When you’re creating web content, it’s never a good idea to just dive in and tackle everything all at once.

The best writers are those who:

  • Develop a system that lets them organize their research
  • Make sense of that information outside of a narrative
  • Organize media such as photos and videos
  • Organize statistics and links to back them up
  • Create a roadmap that will make the actual drafting and optimization of your article a breeze

What do all of these have in common?

They can be achieved by creating a content outline.

By organizing your thoughts, facts, and media while creating the skeleton of your article, you’re going to create better content that’s more informative, more organized, and easier to read.

While some might see the writing of a content outline to be a loathsome or time consuming task, any writer worth their salt will swear by them.  

What is a Content Outline?

A content outline is, simply put, the skeleton of an article which serves as a blueprint of information for you when it comes time to create your final draft. This should be a regular part of your content strategy.

Your content outline should have many parts. This includes all of the headers, images, facts, and statistics that you’re working with to create a polished final product.

Think of writing new content as you would assembling a piece of Ikea furniture. Before you can put that Swedish couch together, you first have to lay out all of the various pieces and tools that you’re working with.

You’ve also got an instruction manual, which gives you a step by step guide to taking these various components and making something out of them.

That’s a content outline!

Creating an outline will help to answer every question you pose and shave some time off of your content writing process.

It currently takes experienced writers nearly four hours on average to write a blog post of 1,200+ words. For some, it can be an even longer process, reaching six to eight hours.

Clearly, blogging is not a short process, like many mistakenly believe it to be. Anyone who has made writing their profession can tell you that outlining all of your information helps to compartmentalize and organize data before you move on to the final drafting phase.

When you have a solid content outline, it makes the drafting process so much easier. With all of the content already in place, all that’s left to do is connect the various facts together with narrative copy.

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How to Create a Content Outline: A Step-By-Step Walkthrough

As we mentioned above, knowing how to create a content outline is a skill that can help you create better articles in a shorter period of time. With a little practice, it can become a regular part of your writing process.

And a few simple tools like Grammarly can go a long way, too.

It’s needed for organizational purposes, helping you make sense of the disparate information you have brought together throughout your research period.

Creating an outline is not a difficult procedure. If you follow these steps, you’ll be able to create the perfect content outline with a minimal time commitment.

This writing technique will allow you to develop more content, providing fresh information to your target audience on a more consistent basis. That in turn will lead to more website traffic, a higher SEO score, and increased profits across the board.

How to Create a Content Outline – Step #1: Determine Your SERP Topic

The first thing you’re going to have to do before starting on your content outline is find your target keyword. You’ll want to do a lot of keyword research before you write your first word. The search term that you choose needs to be relevant to your website and have a high volume of searches.

Consider using a tool like MarketMuse or Google’s Keyword Planner. Once you find out what people are searching for, you can analyze the SERP (Search Engine Results Page) for that topic.

You can then gather a list of keywords and list them at the top or bottom of your content outline. This will give you a point of reference when you’re gathering information and drafting.

By keeping all of these keywords in one place, you won’t have to switch back and forth between platforms while you’re outlining and, later, writing.

By now you should have a strong understanding of what your audience is looking for regarding this topic. Make note of that at the top of your content outline, especially if you’re working on several projects at once. This will help you keep your various articles organized and stop them from bleeding together in your mind.

If you’re a freelance writer who is working for a variety of clients all with different voices, audiences, and tones, this is a step that you’ll swear by.

Skew this article toward the demographic you’ve identified. Make sure you’re keeping track of their most common pain points and finding information that will alleviate them.

For more information on how to conduct a SERP analysis to gauge this data, check out our in-depth article on the subject.

How to Create a Content Outline – Step # 2 Gather Information

Now it’s time to do your research and jot it all down.

First, decide what kind of information you want to include in your post. Remember, different content gets different results.

For example, only 26% of blogs include video content in their articles. However, a recent study shows that 41% of bloggers have reported that they get their strongest results when including video.

It’s always best to know what kind of content you’re going to include before you get started.

When it comes time to do your research, it’s helpful if you’re using a content tool like MarketMuse. It includes a research tab that will provide you with valuable information.  

Click on competitor articles to get some additional information and stats. You should focus on the articles that are ranking high on the SERP — they’re clearly doing something right. See what information they’re including, but also take careful note of what they’re omitting.

You have to know what your opponents are doing (and not doing) if you’re going to try and create a more well rounded argument.

While you do this, take notes on what you’re finding and arrange everything in your content outline shell as a bullet point list.

Look up some common questions that this audience asks and check out the People Also Ask section of the SERP to determine what additional information should be included in your post.

How to Create a Content Outline – Step #3 Create Headlines

Once you have all of your information, it’s time to start formatting your content outline. The first step in this process is to lay out your headers.

Each header should correspond to a major search item associated with the main key term. Some of these sections could even include some items from the People Also Ask section of the SERP.

The H1 headline at the top of the page should correspond directly to your main search item. Next will come your introduction (more on that later). After the introduction, every other section should be an H2 header.

Different subsections of the H2 content are put in as H3 headers. An H4, if needed, would be subsections of H3 headers, and so on through H5 and H6 (though it’s unlikely you’ll need those).

Once you have your headers, you officially have the structure of your outline. Now, you can start to organize your information.

How to Create a Content Outline – Step #4 Write The Introduction And Conclusion

Before you start plugging information in under your headers, it’s a good idea to fully write out your introduction and conclusion.

While the rest of your outline will be in a bulleted format, we’ve always found that it’s a good idea to write these two sections out in full.

Don’t make your introduction or conclusion more than 150 words on average. A little more or a little less won’t kill you. They’re the entrance and exit doorways to the article, so they don’t need to be very long.

Pro Tip: Reusable Writing Templates

The best writing apps also have features that allow you to create dedicated outline templates to re-use, saving you valuable prep time for each new article.

Introduction

When writing your introduction, lay out the audience pain points that you’re going to be addressing. Zero in on agitation points before talking about how you’re going to resolve the issue.

You also want to state your thesis in the intro. Something simple, like, “In this article we are going to…,” will work well.  

It’s your job in this section to hook the reader and pull them down the page.

Another good idea is to list your H2s somewhere in the introduction, giving your reader an idea of what they’re going to be experiencing.

Conclusion

In the conclusion you have to concisely summarize everything that your reader has learned up to this point, putting a final punctuation on the arguments that you’ve so eloquently laid out.

This is where you’d typically include a call to action, if you’re going to be using one. It’s a good idea to label your CTA in the outline.

How to Create a Content Outline – Step #5 Place Information Under Headers

The time has come to take your researched information and plug it in under the proper headers. This is where you start forming the skeleton and muscle of your article.

Place the information in a natural order, something that flows from point to point. Make sure that all of the information you’re including is providing solutions to the various pain points you’ve researched.

The basis for your narrative should be evident just by looking at your data. The road to content competency starts in the outline. If you do this correctly, the drafting process will be much easier. With strong information laid out in a smart way, drafting will essentially consist of connecting your various points with copy.

How to Create a Content Outline – Step #6 Find Statistics and Create Links

Statistics are used in 57% of blog posts, and for good reason. A strong statistic can help you prove your point.

Make sure that the statistics you’re including in your outline are from the last two years at least. If you’re popping old and irrelevant data into your article, you’re not helping anyone.

State the statistic and include the link to your source underneath it as a bullet point. This makes it easier to create external links when you’re going through your draft phase later.

Make sure you’re also referencing some of your internal content and linking to those pieces.

How to Create a Content Outline – Step #7 Find Images

It’s time to include your images. More than 93% of blogs include some form of visual media. More than 47% of them use between two and three images per article. Depending on the length of your article, you may want to add more.

If you’re shooting for 1,000 words, three images should be plenty. If you want a longer article of 2,000+ words, you would want to go with five to seven photos that illustrate your main point.

Why are we harping on this so much? Studies show that using images in blog posts nets you 94% more views on average.

Images should be included in your content outline. If you’re going to be using external images, paste them into the outline and include the credit link as a sub-bullet underneath each item.

If you’re creating your own images, write out an image brief to go along with the outline.

This could be a separate document or included at the bottom of the outline.

Describe what you want to do with each image in the content brief and paste benchmark images in to remind yourself of what you’re looking to do with each one. This is especially important if you’re outsourcing to a graphics department — they can’t read your mind.

Conclusion

Good content marketing should be a major part of any digital marketing strategy. A whopping 77% of people online read blogs, and small businesses that include blog articles in their messaging see 126% more lead growth than another organization that completely ignores the medium.

Regardless of writing ability or whether you are a subject matter expert, the best way to approach content creation is to create an outline of your main idea before working on your final draft. By taking things step by step, you’ll be able to increase your knowledge on topics and create a content process that works for you and makes drafting a breeze.