“It’s a Good Outline, But I Hate It.” – Making Outlines Work

This post was written by John White on Mon, 21 Sep 2009 12:22:55 +0000
Posted Under: managing writing project,outline,presentations,process of writing

Skeleton? Outline? Draft?

Skeleton? Outline? Draft?

You and your marketing communications writer should agree on an outline for larger projects. It’s helpful for business purposes, but sometimes it’s a creative pothole.

Have you ever watched somebody hang a picture or organize a workbench in a way that worked, but was alien to you? “It would never have occurred to me to go about it that way,” you say. “I’d have started at the ends and worked inward, or measured first.”

An outline presents the same problem. Some reviewers just can’t work with a mere skeleton. They need the body and prefer the skeleton hidden.

Problems with outlines

If you’re a marketing communications writer doing a paper for me, I want you to send me some evidence that you understand what I’m trying to convey, and that you can organize the message in a way that will make sense to my ideal reader. If we wait until the full draft, you can be so far down the wrong path that it will cost us both too much time and money to get back on track. That’s why I want to see an outline.

But the solution to that problem usually introduces a few more problems:

  • Outlines are like slide decks: long on bullets and short on real meaning. You raved about a presentation you saw at a conference last month and asked the speaker for a copy of the deck. You opened it and went through it later, but all of the presentation juice was gone. Worse yet, you showed it to a colleague who got nothing out of it. The same thing can apply to an outline: You have an underlying message in mind for the paper, but you can’t tell from the outline whether the writer gets it.
  • What’s the right amount of detail to put in? The writer wonders, “How much detail do I have to write up to show that I get it? (If I get it?)” The writer also doesn’t quite know the amount that the marketing manager wants to read and has to wing it.
  • Some writers think that outlines get in the way of organic writing, and they don’t think creatively within the confines of an outline. (Larry Brooks posted on this a few weeks back in regard to creative writing, and the point is valid for marketing copywriting as well.) The outline they deliver feels forced to both the writer and the reviewer. Drag.
  • Maybe the reviewer just doesn’t get it. Like the example of hanging the picture or organizing a workbench, some people cannot look at an outline and make enough sense of it. They want a full story they can modify right away. They don’t want to see the skeleton at all.

Making an outline work

Here’s a hybrid solution: Have the marketing communications writer give you a skeleton, but with a head (or at least a hand).

Ask for the bulletized outline of points and sub-points that the writer intends to cover in the paper, then have her write a couple of summary paragraphs that will go at the beginning of the paper and set its tone. Or, if she doesn’t plan to include a summary, then ask for the conclusion along with the outline.

Either of these will synopsize the paper and give you an idea of where the writer plans to take the reader. Each of them is an opportunity to use important terminology (and SEO keywords), so you can correct the writer’s grasp and usage of terms that your company values.

When you as a marketing manager can see a completed head or hand, it builds your confidence in whatever else will go onto the rest of the skeleton.

John White of venTAJA Marketing posts about technology writing from the perspective of the marketing manager. It’s dirty work, but somebody has to do it.

photo credit: billolen

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