Even though many people think it is a waste of time to write an outline, it makes a lot of sense to do so. As I point out in my book Write Now, "If you are new English writer or if every email or document you write is is very important for your professional success, you absolutely must take the time to create a good outline." (p. 59)
Writing an outline helps you decide what you want to say - and just as importantly what not to say. It also helps you to decide how you are going to organize your ideas. There are many different ways to structure your ideas.
You may want to use a Chronological Method showing the history of a situation. Another popular outline approach is the Priority Sequence. You list issues in order of importance from most important to least important. A classic approach to write an outline is the Inverted Pyramid in which you put your conclusions first. For other organizational methods check out Business Writing Clear and Simple (pp. 18-19).
Two simple ways to write an outline
For example, let's say you're writing a memo or email in which you need to critique someone's performance. You may want to use the Sandwich Method of critique.
- Say something good.
- Say something good.
Suppose you need to write a persuasive report. Use the Motivated Sequence Outline recommended in Better Business Writing (p. 68).
- Get your readers' attention.
- Make it clear how a problem affects them.
- Offer a solution.
- Explain how the solution works.
- Persuade your readers to use your solution.
Write an outline using an inverted pyramid
This approach has been used by journalists in the popular media for ages to grab the reader's attention. Say the most important things first. In other words, right from the top answer the 5 W's: who, what, where, when, why and how.
Then include the most important information and supporting evidence in descending order of importance in the following sections.
You should ask yourself these two questions:
- What essential points do I need to tell my readers?
- What key ideas, facts or opinions do my readers need to know?
Other important points to keep in mind to write an outline
- Use a catchy title or headline.
- Include headings to highlight important sections or paragraphs.
- Put the main idea (or topic sentence) at the beginning of a paragraph.
For more about the usefulness of the inverted pyramid approach, see the section "He dies in the first line" in Brilliant Business Writing.
Let me know if you're still not convinced about the importance of writing an outline.