Content Outlines 101: How to Lay the Foundation for Great Writing

How often have you been stuck staring at a blank page, hoping the words come to you? We’ve all been there, and it’s due to a lack of a standardized writing system.

Ideally, when you receive a content brief, it should be easy to jump right in and get cracking because you know what to do and how to do it. But many writers still struggle with getting started—and as someone who has been there, I’m here to tell you that content outlines are your best friend.

In this article, I’ll take you through the process of creating a clear-cut and well-researched outline, the benefits of doing it, and the tools to make them quickly.

What is a content outline?

Content outlines are a structured framework writers use to organize and plan their writing before beginning the drafting process. Typically, they include headings, subheadings, and bullet points that break down the writing piece’s main ideas and supporting details. The idea is to distill and structure your thoughts before writing the piece.

They serve as a roadmap, helping you create a draft that doesn’t meander from the actual goal of the piece of content—keeping you in check. Also, it prevents blank page syndrome, allowing you to hit the ground running. As it can be revised as needed, it’s an adaptable tool for content teams, encouraging efficient collaboration.

What is the goal of creating an outline?

Many writers feel they can jump into the draft if they know enough about a topic. But it’s only sometimes possible for inspiration to come knocking on your door with a looming deadline. Here are a few benefits of creating an outline:

Get rid of blank page syndrome

A blank page is a writer’s biggest fear—but with a content outline, that’s not the case anymore. You know precisely what you’ll write about and how you’ll write it. Ideally, you’re creating a structured, repeatable process that increases efficiency over time.

It helps me write >7000 words a week as it orients my mind to what needs to be done, making the process easier.

Give your writing a clear direction

Once you create a repeatable process for yourself, getting started becomes easy. You’re not waiting for intense motivation to kick in. For instance, if you’re writing a blog, start analyzing search engine results (SERPs) or look for industry publications to get a feel of the topic.

Hans van Gent, Founder & Chief Strategist at User Growth, says, “Without outlines, you have no clear direction of where to go with your writing. The moment I started creating outlines, I brought structure into the content I was writing, and the writing became so much easier and faster. With a proper outline, it is just a case of ‘filling in the blanks’.”

Keeps your writing in check

With an outline and content brief, the creation process becomes more straightforward. You don’t waste hours finding an angle or running down the rabbit hole of Google researching tangential topics (we’ve all been there!). This process keeps your writing in check and prevents time wastage.

“Outlines help speed up the writing process because they’re a forcing function for organizing information. Where most content creation projects go sideways (and talk triple the time they should) is when the writer veers off course, says Michaela Mendes, Head of Content and Strategy at SetSail and Founder of Content Career Lab. “The editor or content manager needs to spend too much time reeling the draft back in and focusing it on the original point. The outline is the anchor to the central idea and helps the writer build an argument before they start typing out the final copy.”

How to create a content outline in 6 steps

Personally, I’m a fan of heavily detailed outlines because ~70% of the draft is already done. This also helps my clients or content managers give more nuanced feedback on each section—resulting in a tighter and more authoritative piece. I include the headers, introduction, statistics, images/videos, and internal links for each piece to approve them before the drafting process. You might not want to be this detailed, but it’s up to you. Here’s the general process of building an outline:

Step 1: Review the brief and understand what’s needed

The first thing I do is look at the content brief and absorb everything in it. The idea is to familiarize yourself with the content angle, the primary keyword, and the ultimate goal. Once I do, I use my outline template and build each section. The outline template includes the following:

  • Introduction
  • H2s and H3s
  • Conclusion
  • Link to the brief
  • Primary and long-tail keywords
  • Title tag
  • Image folder
  • Meta description
  • URL slug
  • Internal links
  • Research notes (References, Books, Podcasts, SME quotes, Statistics)

Including all this information on top of the outline makes it easy to kickstart the drafting process. I don’t fill in the metadata, but it’s a reminder of what I need to do after I’ve written the draft.

Step 2: Analyze the SERPs

Next, I look at the keywords and pop them over in Google. This step is crucial because you want to determine the search intent and how the top-ranking articles are structured. I want to ensure it resonates with my target audience (TG), too, so I start by looking at what each blog article covers and identifying common themes. It helps me group them under each heading and identify gaps in these articles.

Based on my analysis, I also consider how to differentiate the article. Can I include a different POV? Or can I survey a set of experts to gather nuanced insights? I’ll make a short note there and start structuring the article.

I’d also recommend looking at “People Also Asked” questions and “Related Questions” to see what else readers are looking for. It also gives you content ideas for different sections and is excellent for SEO.


An example of the People Also Asked section on Google


An example of the Related Questions section on Google

💡 Pro tip: If you want to automate this process, use tools like Frase or Clearscope that give you a bird’s eye view of an article’s structure and commonly asked questions.

Frase’s outline explorer

Step 3: Create a research dump document

After I’ve reviewed the SERPs, I have a fair idea of what I need to include. So, I review related sources to build the crux of my piece. Here’s a list of sources I review during the process:

  • Industry reports and statistics databases to find relevant content and trends and how my TG really feels about the topic
  • Academic papers for technical industries to back up my argument in actual theory
  • Interesting news articles to use as examples (or in the introduction) so that my TG sees themselves in the article
  • Ideas of images or existing videos that I can embed within the article, preferably from the company I’m writing for
  • Reference articles from where I’ve sourced the content

Step 4: Create headers and summary for each section

Once you have everything in one document, build the outline. So, include the headers and a brief description of what you’ll include under each heading.

If you’re anything like me, you might get more prescriptive with it and include your statistics, arguments, suggestions for graphics, and internal links too. It makes it easier to view the outline as a whole and see if it sticks to the original goal of the piece. If not, a concise header and description structure work too.

Step 5: Add the proposed introduction and conclusion

After your content structure is in place, add the introduction and conclusion/call to action (CTA). Usually, I brainstorm different angles for the introduction before getting started with the article, but that’s not always the case. It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach, but make sure to include it so that your reviewer can review if it hits the right pain point and makes sense for the article.

Step 6: Verify logical and narrative flow

Re-read the entire outline and review if the logical and narrative flow works. For instance, one section can sometimes be moved or clubbed with another. So, this quick check ensures that your reviewer can spend less time on it.

After you’re done, send it off for review, and if needed, include comments that explain your perspective for structuring it the way you have. It gives the reviewer added context and creates a more collaborative environment for both ends.

Tools to create solid content outlines faster

There are many tools available to create outlines. Even though they help you brainstorm the piece’s structure, they’re more enablers than complete solutions. Here are a few options you can consider:

Google Docs

Google Docs is a free tool that helps with the drafting process. This is where I usually write all my outlines and drafts, as it’s easy to use, and I can create structured documents with its formatting options. On the left panel, you can get a high-level overview of your piece’s outline, making it easy to navigate and restructure the document.

Outline feature on Google Docs


If you’re generating search-optimized (SEO) content or thought leadership content, keyword research tools are an excellent option for looking at trends and demand. For instance, I usually use Ahrefs to get a high-level overview of the keyword’s difficulty, demand, and ranking features. Plus, you can also access top-ranking articles and evaluate them from a technical standpoint, like the features they rank for. It gives you an idea of what to prioritize for a piece, like an image deck or video.

Keyword research using Ahref’s Keyword Explorer


Content optimization tools like Frase and Clearscope give you an in-depth look into how articles that rank on the SERPs structure their pieces. For instance, Clearscope pulls the H2s and H3s from the top 20 articles to show you common themes you should cover. Based on that, you fill in the gaps by adding your point of view or recent research.

Clearscope’s Research feature

Answer The Public

If you’re looking for long-tail queries that you’d like to rank for, Answer The Public is a great option. It categorizes the data by prepositions, comparisons, and questions, helping you find queries people seek. You get up to three free searches daily, which is more than enough for the average writer.

An example of graphics generated using Answer the Public


ChatGPT is a language learning model (LLM) that helps writers brainstorm while creating their outlines. While the chatbot also generates text, the use case for brainstorming is far more valuable. You can enter the article title and target audience for each topic and ask it to create multiple outlines. Mix and match headings and build the outline based on your brief and SERP analysis.

An example of an outline generated using ChatGPT


Miro has several mapping and brainstorming tools that allow you to build outlines visually. If you prefer visual representations, this tool is perfect for you. Just pick a template and start building an outline with it. You can add short notes for each branch, allowing you to explain each of them.

An example of a mind map generated using Miro

Examples of content outlines

Here are a few content outline examples that contain different levels of detail to inspire your next outline:

  1. Ahrefs — Ahrefs Content Outline Template Copy

    An example of a short outline to kickstart the brainstorming process

  2. Leigh McKenzie, Head of Marketing at Uptime and UnderfitUF // Suit Accessories Brief

    An example of a semi-detailed outline

  3. Content Camel: Outline template

    An example of a detailed outline that includes everything that you want to write about

Breeze through your drafts with a structured content outline

Creating the perfect content outline may seem like an additional task that prolongs your writing process, but in reality, it is a critical step that can help you save time and effort in the long run. You front load your drafting process and make it more structured and efficient—helping you write them faster.

Plus, it simplifies the content review process for your reviewer as they know what to expect and frontload the designing process. This process prevents any bottlenecks and back-and-forth in the later stages, resulting in a tighter content workflow.

Start a free trial of Content Camel today if you’re looking for a tool to manage published content assets.

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