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Notepad with pen to symbolize outlining before you write a document

Five reasons why the best writers outline before they write (and why you should too)

Outlining will make you a more effective writer. Start doing it every time you write.

I know what you’re thinking. 

When you hear the word “outline” in the context of writing, your mind probably goes back to middle school, high school, or college where your English or literature teachers told you to outline before you wrote an essay because it would help you gather your thoughts and be a more effective writer. 

Guess what? They were right. 

No matter how accomplished a professional you are, or how good of a writer (you think) you are, you should be outlining before you sit down to write. Here are five reasons why.

Outlining gives you a bird’s eye view of your document before you begin writing it.

When you outline a document before you begin writing it, you will easily see all the ground you are planning on covering in the document. You will be able to determine if your article, as outlined, will cover the bases you need it to cover. 

If it does not, you can easily tweak the outline, including moving around sections or removing them, without fear that you wasted time writing those sections.

Outlining gives you a structured path to your destination. 

When you outline, you create a structured path to your destination—the final draft of your document. You will know what points you may need to research, and which sections you have plenty of material for versus which sections you’ll need to think more about and flesh out.

Knowing this ahead of time will allow you to conduct all of your research before you write. This will make the time you spend writing more efficient because you won’t have to start and stop the writing process to track down information you need, or to conduct additional research.

Outlining keeps you from falling down a rabbit hole.

Because outlining helps you see the ground you will be covering and whether you need to conduct more research before you begin writing, it naturally helps you eliminate extraneous content. 

Outlining will help you avoid tangents, rabbit holes, red herrings, and other distractions that will prevent you from staying focused on what you need to cover to get your point across compellingly and persuasively.

Outlining gives you flexibility you don’t get by writing as you go.

Outlining brings with it flexibility. When you outline, you can easily tweak the order of your points, introduce new ones, and leave others on the cutting room floor.

Of course, you can do the same thing when you write. But it isn’t as easy. 

There’s nothing pleasant about spending time researching and writing paragraphs or sections only to realize you don’t need them. Or, you might need to rearrange your points after you’ve drafted your document, causing you to have to tweak your segues, abbreviations, and other connective tissue linking your arguments and sections.

When you outline, you can play with the order of your arguments and sections and rearrange them at will without throwing away time you’ve already spent researching and writing.

Outlining makes you a more efficient writer.

Outlining will make you a more efficient writer in two ways.

First, you will eliminate writer’s block. 

You will know exactly what you have to say because you’ve already thought about it and added it to your outline. There’s no wondering, “Where do I start?” or “Where do I go next?” When you sit down to start writing, you can do less thinking about what to write and more writing.

Second, you will find it easy to pick up where you leave off.

If you stop writing and then come back to a document a few minutes, hours, or days later, you won’t have to worry about regaining your train of thought. That’s because your outline has already mapped out for you where you’re going to go so you can hit the ground running (writing?). Again, you’ll spend more time writing and less time thinking about what to write.

Crawl before you walk

There are probably a dozen other great reasons why you should be outlining your documents before you write them. But to me, the above five reasons stand out as the most compelling ones.

If you are not already outlining before you write, I wouldn’t recommend you commit to outlining for the rest of your life. You should crawl before you walk.

With that in mind, here’s an easy challenge. Try outlining the next three documents you will be writing. That will give you a chance to get past the awkwardness of your first outline so you can see if your drafting process benefitted from your outlining.

If it does, maybe you should reach out to one of your old teachers to let them know outlines are still effective writing tools for you all these years later!

Thinking about bringing on an outside writer to help your law firm strategize and create thought-leadership marketing and business development content—because you and your colleagues are too busy to outline and write that content yourselves? Click here to schedule a 30-minute Content Strategy Audit to learn if collaborating with an outside writer is the right move for you and your firm.

Wayne Pollock, a former Am Law 50 senior litigation associate, is the founder of Copo Strategies, a legal services and communications firm, and the Law Firm Editorial Service, a content strategy and ghostwriting service for lawyers and their law firms. The Law Firm Editorial Service helps Big Law and boutique law firm partners, and their firms, grow their practices and prominence by collaborating with them to strategize and ethically ghostwrite book-of-business-building marketing and business development content.

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