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November 15, 2023

How to Properly Write an Outline Using AI

How to Properly Write an Outline Using AI

Table of contents

The way writers write has changed a lot since generative AI came into our lives. In particular, writers outline differently.

Nowadays, writers choose one of two methods when outlining:

  • Either by using an AI tool
  • Or by doing it the old fashioned way with a manual list

In this article we'd like to suggest a third way - one that combines the best of both methods. This means first running a thorough methodology in order to develop the best possible outline, and only then turn to AI to finalize the outline.

Since every article or essay can be outlined in endless possible ways, it's important to nail down a solid process that leads your entire text in the right direction.

By the end of this post, you'll learn my process of outlining using AI. This process has already been used to deliver results and has been incorporated into every content piece we make. Feel free to skip a few paragraphs for the actual formula part. Let's get started.

AI outline generator

Why start with an outline

The simple act of creating an outline forces you to think about the different parts of your article and how they fit together — a critical step that is often overlooked. And once completed, it helps you stay focused on your main topic and identify gaps in your argument or story. 

An outline will also help you with:

  • Structuring to your article and ensuring logical flow
  • Staying focused on your main topic 
  • Identifying gaps in your argument or story 
  • Guiding your research and ensuring it supports your arguments
  • Writing faster and spending less time in first drafts

Your readership will also benefit significantly from well-structured articles. Tangents, fluff, and redundancies weaken the reading experience, and these issues can be easy to miss as you’re writing. If they make it to your final draft, readers may bounce from your page, even if your grammar is good and your ideas are compelling. This makes starting with an outline essential to writing a top-ranking blog article

This article will show you the basic structure and formatting of an outline, what to include, and how to create an outline in four simple steps.  

How to write an outline: Formatting and structure

Outlines are usually presented as a list with multiple levels, like the example below:

  1. Main ideas or topics (e.g. a chapter or section) come first.
    1. Supporting ideas or subtopics fall beneath them. This might be a section with its own heading or just a paragraph.
      1. For each subtopic or paragraph, you can include the main discussion points.
      2. You can also include additional points like examples, sources and research links, and more.
    2. You might have several subtopics or paragraphs.
      1. Each one with additional points below it.
  2. And you're likely to have several main points.
    1. Etc.

Using numerals and letters is preferable to bullet points (like • or –). It allows you to refer to each section by name (e.g. Section 1.1.2 or Section II-A-3), which is especially useful when collaborating with others.

You can write in full sentences or just jot down what's most important — though the former is better when working with others.

Consider the multi-level outline for this article, up to the current section:

  1. Introduction
    1. What is an outline
    2. Why is it important
  2. Formatting your outline
    1. Introduce multi-level lists
      1. Explain why numerals and letters are useful
    2. Provide an example outline from this article
    3. Etc.

Notice how we move from more general ideas (Introduction) to more specific ones (What is an outline? Why is it important?).

In reality, there is no "official" outline structure. You can use whatever numbering is easiest for you, and you can have more (or fewer) levels in your list. Just be wary of including too much or too little detail. On one hand, it’s unnecessary to recreate your entire article in your outline. On the other hand, you don't want to leave out any important main or supporting ideas.

Just like writing itself, your ability to create a good outline will improve with practice. You will find out what works best for you in terms of structure and formatting.

Example outline: What does an outline look like?

Here are two example outlines to help demonstrate what we’ve just discussed. 

One is from an academic piece (one I wrote in university) and one is adapted from a promotional article on Upwork’s blog.

Academic Essay Outline Example

Post Second World-War Conformism and the Rise of Antipsychiatry

  1. Introduction
    1. Introduce historical context: economic and technological growth + urban sprawl and consumerism = conformism
    2. Brief definition of antipsychiatry
    3. Thesis statement – Antipsychiatry was a reaction to American conformism.
  2. Rise of American conformism
    1. The return of American soldiers
      1. GI Bill and consequences for housing → "Urban Sprawl" (Miller, 2000)
    2. Frustration with urban living
      1. Chris Butler (2007): "process of conformity and deformity"; "corporate conformity"
    3. Effects of television
      1. Advertising + reinforced consumerism
        1. Steady income + new living spaces → prime targets for the "powerful and subtle era" of advertising.
        2. Appleby, Brinkley & McPherson, 1998 – "The advertising and marketing of products ... created consumer fads and crazes that swept the nation... Americans bought millions of hula-hoops, poodle skirts ... and pizza."
      2. Television shows & stereotypes
        1. Collins, 2004 — "the arrival of television in nearly all American homes helped perpetuate an idealized conception of the family, as seen in [sitcoms] like Father Knows Best, Leave it to Beaver, and the Donna Reed Show."
        2. Unattainable ideals for men and women.
    4. Illusion of uniformity
      1. 15 million African Americans (US Dept Comm, 1993), but few in suburbs.
      2. Equally true of impoverished/low-income.
      3. Collins, 2004 – "...prevented a wide range of diverse perspectives from reaching the public eye, contributing to the era's sense of 'sameness.'"
  3. State of psychiatry
    1. Electroshock + pharma = imbalance of power between practitioner + patient
  4. Rise of antipsychiatry
    1. Challenges the meaning of mental illness (Rogers, Szasz, Laing)
  5. Parallels in literature
    1. Kesey: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
  6. Conclusion
    1. Antipsychiatry as an anti-establishmentarian movement
    2. Reaction to institutional conformity
    3. Challenges not only how mental illness is diagnosed, but what (if anything) it means to be mentally ill in a conformist society.

Promotional Blog Article Outline Example

  1. (Adapted from this blog article by Upwork)

    Upwork Messages: Essential Tools to Collaborate Effectively

    1. Introduction
      1. Why communicating well is important
      2. What Upwork Messages offers
    2. Ready from the moment you connect
      1. Explain how messages are created automatically
      2. Messages and documents are automatically backed up
      3. Available on web and mobile
        1. Link to Upwork apps page
      4. Message thread tools
        1. Voice and video calls
          1. Link to voice/video calls page
        2. Access to project details
        3. Scheduling
          1. Link to meeting scheduling page
        4. Video and screen recordings
          1. Link to Loom explainer video
        5. Screenshot
          1. Link to "Capture and annotate screenshots" help article
      5. Additional tools
        1. Share links and files; add attachments; search messages; see collaborators; scan files; add private notes; out-of-office responder; enable notifications.
    3. Extra protection for new working relationships
      1. Explain messages in Terms of Service (and link)
      2. Describe "trust and safety program" (and link)
      3. Benefits of communicating on Upwork Messages
      4. Security (HTTPS; malware and spam; privacy and security certifications)
    4. Ready to get started?
      1. CTA: Log in to Upwork account to start using messages.

Follow these four steps to create a great outline.

Step 1: Define your objectives

The overall structure and flow of your article will depend on your goal for the piece. Different objectives require different outlines.

In general, written content can be sorted into four main objectives.

(1) Academic: Presenting an argument

If you are writing an academic piece, your objective is to convince your audience of a point. You’ll assert a claim (also called a thesis statement), provide context, and then make your case with facts and evidence.

Your outline should guide readers through your argument, with each point following from what came before and leading naturally into the next. It may take some shuffling to get all your thoughts in the right order, especially if you're writing a longer piece like a thesis. But it will make proving your point that much easier when you start writing.

(2) Promotional/commercial: Presenting a solution

If you are writing a promotional or commercial piece, the goal is for the audience to realize how your product or service meets their needs. You may want to order your thoughts according to the features that are most important to your target audience. 

If you are drawing a comparison between different products, you can organize your article by features, with products as subtopics, or by product, with features as subtopics. 

(3) Educational: Informing the audience

If you are writing an educational piece, start with basic information first and then build in complexity or precision. 

For example, in this educational article on writing an outline, we started with what an outline is and why it's important. Then we moved to how outlines are formatted before explaining each step to do a full outline. 

It would not have made sense to give these steps before telling you how to format your outline, nor would it have made sense to discuss formatting before explaining what an article is.

(4) Narrative: Telling a story

If you are telling a story, there's a bit more room for creativity. Of course, you can arrange your piece chronologically. But great journalists and storytellers often move back and forth between events, organizing pieces thematically or presenting several parallel storylines that eventually meet.

With a narrative, you’ll have lots of options on which order of events or elements offers the greatest impact. Do you want to hook readers with a shocking event at the beginning, or build up mystery and only reveal important details at the end?

Step 2: Write down your main and supporting ideas

Once you know your aim, you'll be well set up to start creating your outline. Break down your article into a few main ideas, and then, for each main idea, break that down into supporting ideas. 

There's no need to include too many details, like examples or specifics, at this point. It's just like painting: you lay down the broad strokes first and then circle back to add in the details for a more complete picture.

Organize your main and supporting points into a multi-level list, like the one above. It provides a powerful visual representation of your thoughts. Once everything is laid out, it’s typically easier to decide on the final order. 

Keeping in mind your objectives (see step one), you can move your main points around to create a flow of information in which readers have all the context for each point when they get to it.

Step 3: Research and organize resources

You may have already done some or all of your research by the time you decide to start writing. If so, go through your notes and start organizing your research into your outline.

If you haven't completed your research, you can use your outline to guide you. This approach works best if you already have a solid understanding of your topic and know what you want to say. You may find that you have to reorganize your outline or make changes to your main and supporting ideas as you research your topic further.

Either way, you can insert links to relevant sources as bullet points under each section or subsection. This makes it much easier to find the sources you need as you write. If you want to take things one step further, you can also jot down the main points you intend to use from each source. 

This is also a good time to write down any specific details or examples you want to include in each section.

Pro tip: You can use Wordtune Read to create summaries of whole articles in seconds

creating article summaries with wordtune read
Wordtune Read

Step 4: Revise and write the outline using AI

After completing your outline, take a moment to go back through it and ensure the flow of information is logical and in line with your objectives.

You might realize you don't have enough evidence for one point or that some important point was given less attention than it deserves.

You may want to ask a friend or colleague to take a look, too. A fresh pair of eyes can help catch omissions or poor flow. Alternatively, simply take some time away from your outline and review it yourself later on—the next day, if you have time.

Finally, with your outline in place, it's time to start writing.

Stick closely to your outline to avoid going off on tangents. If you realize as you're writing that you've missed something crucial, simply return to your outline and decide on the most appropriate place to put the new element in.

Hopefully, with your thoughts already organized and your research at hand, you should find the writing process smooth. If you need some help fleshing out the details, you can use Wordtune to go from an outline to a full essay or blog post quite quickly.

writing an essay with wordtune spices
Wordtune Spices

Essay outline template

Persuasive essay structure
An outline template for a persuasive essay

Starting with a good outline makes writing essays, blog articles, and more much easier. Outlines help you organize your thoughts and research in a coherent way, stay on topic, and avoid missing any essential talking points.

With practice, you will quickly become adept at writing an outline. Remember, you can always shuffle things around if needed — nothing is set in stone. But a great outline will provide you with a solid foundation to build upon.