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About the Author:

With a tender heart, a drive for learning and a gift for sharing, Margaret brings her years of experience as a licensed professional counselor and a woman of faith to all her writings. Her insights and biblical understanding bring home principles we all can use - no matter the circumstances we are in.


Writing Coach Corner

Outlining is the Backbone
of Good Writing

By Margaret Cook, M.Ed., Licensed Professional Counselor, Life Coach


Sometimes writers want to jump right into the story and fill the page. Maybe you are a writer immobilized by the blank page or screen. All good writers know that outlining saves hours and makes the story easier to tell and stronger all the way through.

Outlining can be a pre-writing activity, but it can also be an invaluable writing tool throughout the writing process – including at the end. Think of a good outline as equivalent to a strong spine and a good skeletal structure for your body. What would your body be like if bones were missing, or your spine was not straight and able to support the rest of your frame?

Being a writer for publication moves you from meandering on the page, to taking more control of the writing process to assure a level of productivity. If you hope to make a living at this craft, you will want your time to be profitable. The most important writing tool for this is outlining.

As with every writing skill, the more you practice this, the better you get at outlining. If you want to improve your productivity and profitability of writing, work on outlining your pieces and using the outlining process to shape the time you spend on a work.

This Farside Cartoon on a Mug is a great reminder to writers of the outline principle:

"...a good outline as equivalent to a strong spine and a good skeletal structure for
your body."


Common Example of Outlining

Have you seen a Power Point slide presentation? Communication to groups is demanding that presenters of every stripe become proficient in outlining. Mastering this kind of public speaking means that the outline guides the audience through your words, but it does not tell the whole story. There is plenty left to the imagination, but the outline on the slides gives form and structure to help the audience remember more.

Starting your Outline

Pre-writing can involve a topic, title or idea for a writing project. Once you have an idea, do some brainstorming or preliminary research to boost your thoughts about the writing you intend to do. Some writers have to limit how much brainstorming or preliminary information they create, others will need to stretch themselves to get more. Once you have a basic fund of ideas, start your outline. The first outline will help you get a good beginning, middle and end. Use this outline to do further research and/or brainstorming. Then, revise the outline. The outline offers structure and guidance, but it is also a tool to help you develop your story. Outlines change as you progress through the writing project. The preliminary outline can guide your first draft writing.

Revising the Outline

Prolific writers will want to go back after writing and decide to edit the writing to more closely match the outline of what they intended. You may also consider revising the outline if the writing took a different direction than your planning outline. As you can see, the outline now becomes an editing tool. You may also use your outline at this stage to strengthen transitions. As you revise, edit and re-write use the outline to keep the writing tight, focused and accomplishing your purpose.

Finalizing the Project Outline

When you have completed your writing project according to the outlines you developed, consider creating a final outline that would function like a table of contents. At this stage, you may spot something that would work better for the reader if you moved it to a different place. Rearrange, revise and look for logical breaks. You always want to consider using headings and subheadings. You may distribute longer work into chapters. Use the outline and table of contents to provide clues and helps for the reader who may read at a glance or need to refer back for specific information.

Software Tools for Outlining

Outlining is part of the art and science of writing. Software use can improve your outlining skills and be a great advantage in preparing manuscripts and writing for publication. Word Processors have outlining capabilities and can generate a table of contents that automatically updates the page numbers. Advanced users will want to master the endnotes and index features. Professional writing is more productive when the writer is proficient in using the software tools of technology. Take some time to learn how to use your word processor tools at least. The internet links below this month include some tutorials to develop your technical skills as well as more general links for writing techniques and examples of outlines.

Outlining - Internet resources for writers

General information on outlining:

Using Software for outlining:
Using the Outlining feature in Word
comprehensive article with ideas on software use and a quiz
Comprehensive, including links to tutorials for Word and Appleworks

Tips for Outlining and Writing:
Process – brainstorm, organize, order, label
Story strength
Emphasis on planning – and has 4 types of outlines

Specific Applications and Uses of Outlining:
Movie outline and software
Programmers outline

Microsoft Specific:
Using Microsoft Word generally
Microsoft Word 2003 Outline Tutorial
Microsoft Word 2003 Basic Table of Contents
Microsoft Word 2003 Advanced Table of Contents
Microsoft Word 2003 Footnotes and Endnotes
Microsoft Word 2003 Styles
Microsoft Word and Excel 2003 Research Service


Copyright © January 7, 2007 – Margaret Cook. All rights reserved.
Permission to use or duplicate this article is available by contacting the author at


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