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:
(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 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
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
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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