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

It's a good white paper outline, but I hate it.

A good outline is a skeleton that ensures you and your content marketing writer are on the same page. 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 “I would have measured first.”

An outline presents the same problem. It’s the skeleton of the asset to be created. But some reviewers just can’t work with a mere skeleton. They need to see the entire body, with the skeleton hidden.

Problems with outlines

Suppose you’re a content marketing writer working on a white paper or eBook for me. I want you to send me some evidence that you understand what my organization is trying to convey. I want to be convinced that you can organize the message in a way that will make sense to my ideal reader.

If we wait until you send me the full draft, you may already be miles down the wrong path. It will cost both of us a lot of time and money to get back on track. That’s why I want to see a good outline first.

But there are problems with outlines:

  • Outlines are like slide decks: long on bullets and short on real meaning. Remember that presentation you raved about at the conference last year? The presenter sent you a copy of the deck, but when went through it a week later, it looked like just a bag of bullets to you. Worse yet, you showed the deck to a colleague who got nothing out of it. That same thing can apply to an outline. You may have an underlying message in mind for the paper, but there’s not enough meat on the skeleton of the outline for you to tell whether the writer really gets it.
  • How does your writer know the right amount of detail to put into her outline? She wonders, “How much do I have to write up to show that I’m on the right track?” She also doesn’t quite know the amount that you as marketing manager really want to read.
  • Some writers can’t think creatively within the confines of an outline. For them, outlines get in the way of organic writing. (Larry Brooks posted on this in the context of creative writing. It’s a valid point for marketing copywriting as well.) They deliver an outline, but it feels forced. “It’s a good outline,” the marketing manager says, “but I hate it.”
  • Maybe the marketing manager just doesn’t get it. Like the example above, of hanging a 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 a good outline work

Here’s a hybrid solution: Have the content marketing writer give you a skeleton, but with a head on it.

Ask her to flesh out the introduction, with two or three full paragraphs that show the tone she will set with readers. Then have her use bullets to step through the points and sub-points she intends to cover in the body of the paper.

That gives you an idea of where she plans to take the reader. It’s an opportunity for her to use your important terminology (and SEO keywords). And it gives you the chance to correct her grasp and usage of terms that your company values.

When you as a marketing manager can see a completed head, it builds your confidence in whatever is going to flesh out the rest of the skeleton.

photo credit: billolen


Author: John White

John White of venTAJA Marketing is a content marketing writer for technology companies. He posts about technology writing from the perspective of the marketing manager. It’s a dirty job, but somebody has to do it. Download his eBook, “10 Questions to Ask When Hiring Your Content Marketing Writer.”