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How to Write an Article Outline (For Thought Leaders)

How to Write an Article Outline (For Thought Leaders)

Liston Witherill
Liston Witherill
12 min read

Quick thought experiment. Let's say there are two experts.

Expert A is the most talented in the world at their craft.

Expert B is very good, but nowhere near the level of talent of Expert A. But Expert B is an exceptional writer, and can communicate what she knows better than any other expert in the field. She's clearer, more consistent, and a more prolific writer than Expert A.

Who's more likely to build their brand and authority?

Expert B, of course. Being the best is subjective, but you can hand off a piece of writing to anyone and it's self-explanatory. Clearly explaining what you know is a critical skill that pays huge dividends, and a reader can objectively evaluate it.

But writing doesn't come naturally for all experts. How do you get better at writing, overcome "writer's block," and logically structure your articles?

Outline your articles before you sit down to write. I'll teach you how to do it. In this article, you'll learn:

  • How to write an article outline
  • Why you should begin the writing process with an outline every time
  • How to identify key points for your article
  • Organizing your article for flow and clarity
  • What an example article outline looks like, and how you can do it, too

Note #1 before you dive in: I also write with SEO in mind, despite the fact that I'm writing for a sophisticated, expert-level audience. If you're interested in learning how I outlined this article and optimized it for search, check out this video walkthrough:

Note #2: if you're writing research-driven articles, this is not the process to follow. Instead, do your research, come to conclusions guided by the research, the write your outline last.

How do you write an article outline?

Writing an article outline begins with your topic. What are you going to write about, who is it for, and what will the article do for them? Answering these simple questions is the place to start with all of your writing.

Once you have the answers to those questions, write your One Sentence describing your article. Meta as it is, I'll reference how I wrote this article throughout to illustrate how to outline. My one sentence for this article is:

How to outline a thought leadership article that also ranks in search.

Once you have your one sentence, it's time to decide how to fulfill the promise of the article. That is, what key points do you need to make in order to give the reader what you're promising?

Be exhaustive. Write out as many key points as you think you might need to make.

Then you'll organize your key points and eliminate the ones that are extraneous or don't belong. Now your article outline is taking shape.

The last step in completing your outline is to expand on each of the key points. You can think of the process like a filing cabinet. Each time you make a key point, you're making a drawer. Files in the drawer explain and substantiate the point you made. You'll go on like that until you're ready to write the article.

Here's a picture of how it works:

article-outline-process
Process for creating your article outline. 

Outlining Is the Start of Your Writing Process

The hallmark of good writing is clarity. Simplicity wins every time. The thing about clarity is that you can't create it in your writing if it doesn't already exist in your head.

I was talking to a friend about this very topic. I asked her what her article was about in one sentence. She struggled a bit to answer, and I finally suggested "would you say it's about pursuing your passion?" Yes, she said, that's right.

She's an expert, and one of the smartest people I know. She only lacked clarity because she hadn't committed to the premise of the article upfront, before she wrote it.

In Ryan Holiday's book Perennial Best Seller, he suggests going through an exercise before creating anything that he calls One Sentence, One Paragraph, One Page. When writing an article, you need only start with One Sentence. Write down what you're making, for whom, and what it will do for them.

When I sat down to write this article, here's the One Sentence I came up with:

This article will help current and aspiring thought leaders write better content, faster, and have it rank on Google.

Good start, but it sounds like 50 articles rather than one. It's also a benefit statement - what the reader will get out of reading the article - rather than a one-sentence description of the article's topic and purpose.

Narrowing down the topic before you write, and before you even outline, will pay huge dividends in your writing process. The sharper your one-sentence description, the easier and clearer every other choice will be moving forward.

Going back to the One Sentence for this article, the original description contained way too many ideas:

  • Become a thought leader
  • Be a better thought leader
  • Write content faster
  • Write better content
  • Rank your content on Google

From there I can narrow further. I write for experts and agency owners. That's enough. We'll go with that. Why do they struggle to write? They lack clarity. That makes them slower, and causes them to write boring ass vanilla content. Plus they rarely rank their content in search. What can help all of that?

An article outlining process. I did a little keyword research to see the best way to position the article (see the video above), and rewrote the One Sentence to this:

How to outline a thought leadership article that also ranks in search.

From there, I turned the One Sentence into a description that would appeal to readers:

Starting with an article outline will help your writing have more impact, focus, and even rank on search.

The One Sentence is also part of the meta description for this article, which is what searchers see on Google in their search results. I added a sentence to serve as the hook for them to be interested in clicking, telling them who the article is for and why it's important to read it:

Good thought leadership is clear, concise, and well-structured. Starting with an article outline will help your writing have more impact, focus, and even rank on search.

Once your One Sentence is decided, it's time to brainstorm key points.

Capturing the Key Points

Once you have your One Sentence, the rest of your outline is pretty easy to write. I tackle this part of the process in two separate ways:

  1. Writing down the key points with a pen and paper, no computer screen
  2. Then review what searchers want to know about the topic

At this stage, don't even think about the finished article. You're collecting, not writing. Capture whatever comes to mind.

If you're writing a how-to article, what's the sequence of steps someone will go through? What questions will they have, and where will they get stuck?

If you're writing a persuasive article, what comes to mind about the topic? How do you think about it, and how can you contrast your thinking to conventional wisdom?

If you're writing a narrative, what's the arc of the story you're going to tell? What's the conflict, and how was it overcome?

As an expert, you'll mostly write how-to or persuasive articles. Let's look at an example of each style of writing.

I love to smoke meat, and I'm an absolute amateur, but if I was going to write an article about how to smoke a brisket, I'd think about it in chronological order:

  • Choosing a piece of meat
  • Trimming it
  • Seasoning it
  • Storing it
  • Cooking it
  • Letting it rest (and you'd better let it rest!)
  • Cutting it
  • Serving it

That's a one minute take on an article about how to smoke a brisket. Now let's turn to a persuasive writing example.

I have a theory I call The Arc of Social Media, which posits that every new social channel starts as a giant opportunity, inevitably degrades in reach, and becomes a winner-take-all platform dominated by very few and forces everyone else to pay to play.

Here are the key points I might make in that article, broken apart in major sections:

  • Why you're being lied to about social
  • Who's really winning
  • Social media as a system of a attention
  • Supply will always outstrip demand
  • Steps you can take to avoid this

Whatever your One Sentence, and whatever your article's style, you'll need to make key points in order to deliver an article that fulfills the original promise, or makes a strong argument. Write 'em all down. And when I say all, I do mean it.

Next up, you can take a look at what searchers want to know about the topic. In order to do that, you'll have to figure out a target keyword. I like doing that in the One Sentence step so it's already clear.

For this article, my target keyword is "how to write an article outline," or simply "article outline." I'll plug that into Google and look first for the autocomplete to find out what Google thinks people want to know about the topic:

google-autocomplete-results
Google autocomplete results. 

From there, I'd look at the questions people have about the topic:

people-also-ask-google-results
Questions that Google thinks people have. 

Then I look at the "people also search for" content area at the bottom:

people-also-search-for.jpg
What people also search for.

In this case, I don't care about much of this information. You can always bet that "template" and "examples of" will come up for any how-to articles you write. After this quick research I have a bigger list of key points than I can possibly make. It's time to organize the key points - and eliminate.

If you'd like to use more advanced tools to perform your keyword research (or you're just curious how I do it), I recommend:

  • ahrefs - for in-depth keyword research, search monitoring, and website SEO health
  • Keywords Everywhere - an inexpensive Chrome plugin that appends search data to your Google searches
  • Google Search Console - a free tool that lets you see the search impressions and clicks you're getting, top performing pages, and how your search traffic is trending
  • Google Analytics - another free tool, not specifically to help with search, but gives you analytics data about your website

Organizing Your Thoughts

Back in 2004 the New York Times published an image of an actual PowerPoint slide presented to General Stanley McCrystal. The slide was designed to convey the complexity of the American strategy, and multitude of constraints limiting the potential success of the war (whatever that means).

When presented with the slide, McCrystal is said to have remarked "When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war." The room erupted in laughter, and no one won the war.

Afghanistan powerpoint slide.jpeg
Actual slide presented to General McCrystal.

Luckily you're not writing about anything nearly as complex as war. Still, however accurate this image may be, it's a poor way to communicate anything meaningful, unless the goal is to convey "this is too complicated and we don't know what the fuck we're doing." If so, mission accomplished.

Breaking your article down into just the essential components, and eliminating everything else, is the next stage of your article outline. Do this in two steps:

  1. Reorganize your key points so they best serve your One Sentence
  2. Combine key points, and eliminate all those that aren't necessary

Judgment is an essential part of this process.

After a few years of making music, I began to think about every song as the consequence of over a million small decisions. Which drum sounds to use, how loud they'll be, how they're panned, whether to have an intro or not, when the bassline comes in, what it is, whether it's synthetic or electric, whether to use autotune (I joke). The list goes on. Add it all up, and you have a one-of-a-kind song.

The writing process is no different. The implications of your decisions cascade in importance, from most to least, and it all adds up to a finished product.

As you organize your thoughts, consider how your reader is most equipped to process the information, and how you want to tell the story.

Since you might be thinking it, there's no minimum number of key points need to make. But since you'll then press me to give you a non-mealy-mouthed answer, target 3-5 key points at a minimum (otherwise it's not an article, it's a note). For longer pieces, like this one, 5-10 key points are a good rule of thumb.

And don't be afraid to cut. You'd rather have readers thinking "I want more" rather than "that was too much."

You can think about the end product of organizing your key points as being similar to a book's table of contents. Here's the table of contents from Perennial Best Seller:

perennial-seller-toc-example.jpg
Perennial Seller TOC

Notice that the chapters - the key points - tell a story on their own. You already know what the book is about and what it will cover.

The key points of your article should have the same effect, communicating the gist of your article without having to read the whole thing.

Expand On Each Key Point

Finishing your article outline is about systematically adding depth until you have a full piece of writing on your hands. It's how every outline works.

Each of your key points should support the main argument or goal of your article. Going back to the brisket example, I might expand the first key point, "choosing a piece of meat," into sub points like:

  • Where to find good meat
  • Target weight range
  • How to visually evaluate it
  • Evaluation by feel
  • Ideal age of the brisket

Similarly, I can expand upon the "social media as a system of attention" point in the other example article:

  • Platforms monetize through advertising
  • To sell more ads, they need more attention
  • To get more attention, they need more content
  • When they have too much supply, they start rationing attention by charging for it
  • Only a very select few will continue to get free traffic

In this way, each key point is like a little mini article on its own, building up to a complete argument.

As you expand each key point, consider what will make it a sound argument, while being interesting or novel. This is when I think about stories I might tell in the article (like the Powerpoint slide, or comparisons to music, or brisket example), statistics or facts, and more.

Once you've finished this step, you're done with your outline and ready to write your article.

Article Outline Example

Since you're going to the trouble of reading this article, I'll show you the outline I made before I sat down (or opened up my writing app) to write it.

Note the format. The article begins with an introduction to drive interest, then each major bullet is a key point, followed by sub points to make about each, and then the article ends in a conclusion.

If you have a fine-tuned sense of scrutiny, you'll also notice that the finished product is only about a 70% match to the initial outline. The writing and editing processes reveal changes, improvements, and sections that need to be cut.

Here's the article outline I made:

article-outline-example.jpg
The actual article outline for what you're reading now.

Article Outline Template

If you'd like to follow this process, I've made a template you can use. It includes fields and guidance for:

  • One Sentence
  • Target Keyword, Slug, and H1 Title / Meta Title
  • Research Tools
  • Key Points
  • Organizing and Eliminating Your Key Points
  • Your Full Article Outline

You can download the full article outline template using the form below, and you'll also be signed up to my email newsletter.

Conclusion

Getting into the habit of creating an article outline will help your writing stay more focused, more concise, and even rank in search if you incorporate SEO research into your process.

Expertise is not the same as authority. Establishing your expertise publicly will attract more of the right clients to you, and you'll clarify your own thinking in the process.

Here's my recommendation for your next step. That article you've thought about writing for months? Start outlining it now.

Write your One Sentence. Jot down as many key points off the top of your head, then bounce around Google a bit to see how people are thinking and talking about the subject.

As you build out your article outline, you'll find that you've already done the hard part. After the outline, writing isn't so daunting.

And if you decide to follow this process, email me and let me know how it goes, with a link to your article.

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