Why You Should Outline Before Writing Important Business Documents

Why You Should Outline

While it may not seem like the key to your business, much of what you do revolves around written documents. From your business plan to your website, from press releases to company memos or emails, you write documents to share information and to convince people to buy your products or invest in your company.

Writing these documents is important, and there’s a skill that is essential to crafting efficient documents: outlining. Instead of just starting with a blank page – or window – and writing, it’s extremely useful to take the time to create an outline for your important documents.

Here’s why you should outline before writing business documents.

What is Outlining?

Depending on your education, you may or may not have have learned to outline. An outline is a preparatory document you create before writing something. It generally looks like this:

Outline document

(There are other ways of organizing outlines, using Roman numerals, numbers only, letters only, etc.)

When you outline, you create a document that changes as you think about what you want to say. You may start by listing all the top-level points, then adding sub-topics. You may jot down your first main topic, then its sub-topics before you move on. Or you may skip back and forth as you progress and think of the many elements you want to include in your document.

Outlines Make You Slow Down

Outlines Make You Slow DownWhen writing an important document, you should never dive into it head-first and try to rush it out. This can lead to sloppy writing and mistakes. One benefit of outlining is that it slows you down. You allow yourself the time to reflect on the big picture that you want to present and you can make sure that you’ve covered all the main points of your argument. By reading and editing an outline, you don’t sweat the little things, but you focus on the points that are most important.

Outlines Help You Create a Narrative

Whether you’re writing a press release or an important email to all your employees, there should be a narrative to your documents. You have a story to tell, and taking the time to outline and include all the elements you want to cover ensures that your narrative makes sense, that it flows.

As you create your outline, you can move items up and down, taking what at first seemed like main points and making them sub-topics, or promoting certain sub-topics to main points. You get a big-picture view of what you want to say, rather than focusing on each sentence in the order in which you write.

Outlining Links Your Ideas

Outlining Links IdeasWhen your ideas aren’t hidden in paragraphs, it’s easier to see what you want to discuss and how the various points are linked together (or not). This allows you to move them around in the outline, ensuring that each section of your document has logical cohesion.

Outlines Help Collaboration

When you create outlines, you can share them with your colleagues to get their opinions. It’s much easier to do this at the outline stage of a document than after you’ve written a thousand words, because your collaborators don’t need to focus on specific terms or expressions. They can give feedback on the ideas you are covering, to help ensure that you’ve not missed anything, or not under-appreciated the importance of certain points. With this sort of feedback, your documents will have better structure when you finally start writing.

Outlining Helps You Write Better

Outlining Helps You Write BetterYou may think that an outline is an extra step in creating documents, but it can actually save you time. As you decide what your main points and sub-topics are, your brain subconsciously starts thinking about how you will write your document. When you start writing, you’ll have done a lot of the work already, and it’s often easier to compose a document after you’ve spent some time preparing it.

Useful Software for Outlining

Some outlining software is relatively simple, and some gives you incredibly detailed ways of organizing outlines, with multiple levels of topics, notes for each item, and more.

You probably already have software you can use for outlining. Microsoft Word and OneNote have outlining modules, and you can create outlines in Google Docs. Evernote lets you create outlines, as do many simple notes apps, such as Apple’s Notes. (We discussed some of these apps in this article.) My tool of choice on the Mac is OmniOutliner, which I use for long documents, because of its flexibility. But you can also use any note app or text editor using, say, dashes to indicate topics, then double dashes for the next level, and so on.

You can even create an outline using file cards. Jot down a topic on a card, then another, and so on, and shuffle them around until they are in the right order.

If you don’t already outline, you should try the next time you have an important document to create. You may find that it helps you write better, think more deeply about your topics, and helps you become more creative.

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