How to Write Quickly Using Outlines

You can speed up your writing by using an outline to map out the flow of your work. Get-It-Done Guy has 6 tips to help improve your writing.

Stever Robbins
4-minute read
Episode #225

How to Write Quickly Using Outlines

by Stever Robbins

Writing! I just love writing! No, actually, I don’t. In fact, I kind of hate writing. Which is why it’s rather puzzling that I’ve written 225,000 words of Get-it-Done Guy episodes, roughly 100,000 words of my own newsletter, and an entire published book in the last four years. Some people say, “Well you get paid for all that.” Some people have never actually investigated the financials of the publishing industry. Maybe I’m just addicted to writing, like I’m addicted to caffeine, or books about urban vampire hunters, or shaving cream.

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One thing’s for sure: I write quickly. Outlining is a key reason why. If your job or life involves doing a lot of writing, here are 6 tips for using outlines to work less and write more:

Tip #1: Start Writing with a Purpose

My first tip goes back to fifth grade when they taught you to outline. It really helps! Instead of jumping right into crafting your elegant prose, take a few minutes to create an outline. An outline is really just the main points you intend to make, in the order you plan to make them.

Why write an outline? Because your outline is where you work out the overall logic of your writing. The more logical your work is, the more it builds to a climax, and the more readers will want to keep reading.

Start by writing a single sentence that declares the purpose of this piece of writing. What effect do you want it to have on your reader? Let’s say you’re writing a proposal for a new product. Your purpose would be: Convince manager to approve project to develop combination can opener/back scratcher.

Tip #2: Create a Rough Outline

List your top 3–5 points. Play with the order and rearrange them until they’re in an order that makes sense. So if we continue with my example of a new product presentation, a rough outline might look like this:

  • the income potential of the can opener/back scratcher is enormous

  • people need this product

  • we’re the ideal company to release such a product

Beneath each point, write 3–5 subpoints. Each subpoint should support the main point. It should either be an example of the main point, or a supporting piece of logic. For example, beneath “Income potential is enormous,” you could write:

  • people’s backs have become increasingly itchy over the last decade

  • people are more impatient than ever when opening cans

  • people have a track record of paying over $100 for useless gadgets


Tip #3: Outline on Paper

I find the outlining task works best if I do it on paper. Since your outline will likely be under 25 lines, it will easily fit on a piece of paper. Why paper? Because you can sit under a tree at the park, write your outline, and concentrate. If you try to outline on the computer, there are just too many distractions.

Tip #4: Skip the Vowels

If writing by hand is slow for you, omit many or all of the vowels when you write. Instead of writing, “Little Red Riding Hood discovered that Big Bad Wolf makes excellent stew meat,” write “lttl rd rdng hd dscvrd tht bg bd wlf mks xcllnt stw mt.” Most of the time, you’ll be able to read it back just fine, and it will save you time writing.

Tip #5: Fill in Successive Detail

Once you’ve written your outline, type it in and flesh it out. Think of yourself as the Dr. Frankenstein of words, adding flesh here, a bolt there, and stitching in an extra sentence or two where needed.

Take several passes. On each pass, add a little more detail. The first time through, turn each line of your outline into the topic sentence of a paragraph. Just write whatever thoughts come to mind for that paragraph. No editing yet.

The next time through, fill out skinny paragraphs, and reduce or split large paragraphs. Now you’re Jenny Craig. Work those paragraphs! Your creation will slowly take shape. The number of passes depends on how long you want the piece to be. A typical Get-it-Done Guy episode takes 3–5 passes to go from outline to finished piece of writing. My book took over 200 passes. Wow. I’m suddenly realizing exactly how much work that was. If you don’t already own the book, please buy it now. And tell all your friends to buy it, too. And tell them to subscribe to the podcast.

Tip #6: Collect Examples in Your Outline

As you immerse yourself in a piece of writing, you’ll often think of examples and stories you want to use. But you won’t always think of them when you’re working on that part of your writing. Jot down the examples in your outline, roughly in the place you want them to be. Then return to whatever else you were working on. When you do your next writing pass, make the wording of the example flow into the surrounding section.

Collect examples at the end of your document.

If you don’t know where an example goes, collect it at the end of your document. On your next pass, consider your collected examples and decide which should be incorporated where. Like orphans, however, not all examples have a home. Sometimes you’ll find your favorite example doesn’t quite fit, and needs to be abandoned, left to beg for scraps of food before dying of consumption in a gutter. Writing well is a brutal business, not for the faint of heart.

Outlines are the key to good writing. They let you sort out your logic and examples early. Start with your purpose, jot down your main points and subpoints. Rearrange your outline until you get the logic the way you want it. Then use easy, quick successive passes to add detail and turn it into a masterpiece of prose.

This is Stever Robbins. Email questions to getitdone@quickanddirtytips.com.  Follow Get-It-Done Guy on Twitter and Facebook.

I coach successful people in building exceptional written communication skills, from one-line elevator pitches and taglines to large-scale writing. If you want to know more, visit http://www.SteverRobbins.com.

Work Less, Do More, and have a Great Life!

Woman writing image from Shutterstock

About the Author

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins was the host of the podcast Get-it-Done Guy from 2007 to 2019. He is a graduate of W. Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management training program and a Certified Master Trainer Elite of NLP. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BS in Computer Sciences from MIT.