How to Properly Write an Outline Using AI
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.
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:
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:
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
Promotional Blog Article Outline Example
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.
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.
Essay outline template
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.
This article was co-written with Wordtune. Wordtune didn’t write the whole piece. Instead, it contributed ideas, suggested rephrasing alternatives, maintained consistency in tone, and of course - made the process much more fun for the writer.