How To Outline an Article: 12 Best Practices

Suzanne Wentley
August 21, 2023
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Writing an article can be compared to building a house. Both writers and builders often start with a big-picture vision of the completed project. But if they don’t have a plan, that big picture can feel overwhelming.

That’s why builders learn how to read blueprints and writers learn how to create outlines.

A basic outline can do more than just help avoid writer’s block. Any outline of an article is a tried-and-true method for ensuring that the piece flows well and eliminates unnecessary elements that can take away from the power of the content.

While not every article requires an outline, knowing how to write an outline can help writers of all levels of experience hone their craft, improve their work, and write a good article every time.

What Is an Article Outline?

What is an outline? An outline is a tool that writers use to organize themes, ideas, and important concepts in a logical and easy-flowing structure. Outlines include a title for the work, a clearly defined focus or thesis, and the body of the content. It is a detailed list of the information to be addressed in the article.

Outlines use a format that employs Roman numbers like I, II, III, IV, and V as well as letters and regular counting numbers like 1, 2, and 3. This is known as an alphanumeric outline.

The largest themes are condensed into short phrases and labeled with Roman numbers. Within each theme, use letters to divide it into different subsections you’d like to discuss in the article. Those points can be divided even further into additional ideas, which you can label using lowercase letters and, as another subdivision, with counting numbers.

This outline structure is less about writing full sentences and using proper grammar and more about ensuring you’ve got all your ideas ready for expansion in one place. Thus, depending on the proposed length of the finished product, a short outline of one page may suffice.

Once you’ve completed this work, you’ll be ready to begin the writing process.

Importance of Outlining an Article

The best work always starts with a proper outline format. There are many reasons to complete this seemingly extra step in the writing process. Outlines allow writers to:

  • Organize their thoughts ahead of time.
  • Write faster.
  • Have a plan to consult to ensure nothing is forgotten.
  • Understand the relationship of ideas within the article.
  • Improve their clarity.
  • Create content at scale.
  • Ensure they reach your desired length.

The last point is worth elaborating for writers who craft marketing copy, in particular. Often, an article requires a certain word count. When you start your content writing with an outline, you know if you’ve written the appropriate length to balance topics needing to be addressed.

12 Best Practices for Outlining an Article

You’ll become more proficient with the process of creating an outline and writing faster as you become more seasoned in the industry. Still, even award-winning writers follow the best practices for excelling in this essential step.

1. Identify Your Target Audience and State the Purpose of Your Article Clearly

Like all marketing initiatives, the first step in understanding how to outline an article is to think about who you want to read it. Writing directly for a target audience will help you determine what topics to cover, what tone to use, and what level of vocabulary to employ. After all, the relevant content in articles geared toward high school students will be very different from an article for CEOs.

Once you’ve successfully narrowed your target audience, consider the message you'd like the reader to take away from your article. This is also known as a thesis statement, which is a sentence that sums up the central message of your article. If you are using a target keyword, you will want to include it in this purpose statement.

2. Choose a Clear and Compelling Title

At the top of the outline, add the title of your article. Titles are not typically full sentences. Instead, they are concise, clear, and engaging descriptions of the central theme of the article. The best titles make your target audience want to read more. Always include keywords in your title if they are part of the article.

3. Determine the Main Ideas You Want To Convey in Your Article

Now it’s time to outline the body of the article, so start by identifying the largest themes. Your content outline should have at least three main ideas, and you can use Roman numbers to structure your content outlines.

Depending on the length, you may have more than three main ideas. Each of these should have subtopics you’ll want to explore. Try to have a somewhat equal number of points to explore under each idea.

4. Divide Your Main Ideas into Subtopics or Sections

A subtopic is a division of a larger topic, and these smaller sections are the content ideas of your article. List these subtopics underneath each of the main ideas using letters. If you have thoughts you’d like to expound on within a subtopic, you can further list these in your outline using counting numbers. You can use lowercase letters to break up these ideas even further.

Think of this work a little like writing a listicle. Breaking up the ideas makes it easy to understand for the reader — and easier for you to write in clear and engaging paragraphs.

5. Arrange Your Subtopics in a Logical Sequence

Once all your ideas are in your sample outline, see if they flow logically regarding your content strategy. A benefit of writing a short outline first is that you can move entire sections around without cutting up your finished product. Editing like this improves your content creation.

6. Use a Hierarchical Structure with Headings and Subheadings

Next, check that you are using the alphanumerical structure appropriately. Ensure that the main topics are listed next to Roman numbers and that the subtopics are of generally equal importance for each main topic.

7. Include Transitions Between Paragraphs

An outline of an article isn’t just adjusting the main ideas and subtopics into full sentences. Even before you begin the writing process, create transitions between paragraphs to improve your content quality. The best writers are voracious readers, so think back to different articles and books you've read to see how other writers employ transitions. From there, craft transitions that create a smooth and logical flow from one topic or idea to the next.

8. Include Supporting Points and Evidence

Research is critical for the best outlines and writing, whether you’re crafting a blog article or a master’s thesis. Supporting evidence will help the reader better understand your main topics and add weight to your writing. You can list these supporting points by using counting numbers under each subtopic.

9. Keep Your Headings and Subheadings Consistent

Now that you’ve gotten all your ideas on paper and organized, look back at the main topics and subtopics. You can translate these ideas into headings — the main headline and subheadings. Subheadings are a way many writers break up their articles to improve readability. It’s how this article is organized!

Lastly, be sure to include at least one body paragraph under each subheading that adds details to your ideas.

10. Use Keywords in Headings and Subheadings To Improve Search Engine Visibility

When writing blog content, your client or editor will likely provide keywords in the assignment for you to include throughout the article. The primary keywords — which are short or long phrases used in a search query to find relevant articles — should also be included in your headings and subheadings.

11. Proofread Your Outline Carefully

Before you begin writing, take a final look to proofread your outline. Many writers prefer to take a short break before revisiting their work to have a fresh perspective. You may discover you are missing key elements or have typos in your outline.  

12. Be Open to Adjusting and Refining Your Outline as You Write

Finally, recognize that the outline of an article is not chiseled in stone. You can adjust or add to it however you need. Writing is a creative journey, so be open and enjoy the process.

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