How to Create a Blog Post Outline (With Free Templates)
Newcomers to blogging and experienced bloggers alike have one thing in common: the ever-present need to organize our thoughts. Writing blog posts takes more than just a stream of consciousness putting words to the page.
The key to a good blog post is the same as it was back in high school composition classes: the outline. Writing a solid outline for your post will make it infinitely easier to organize your thoughts in a logical manner, figure out what sections are important and which aren't, and meet your word count goals without over-fluffing particular sections.
Let's start by digging into why outlines are considered a best practice for article writing.
2023 Update: This article has been updated to include the recent launch of ChatGPT and other AI writing tools! I'll discuss the right (and wrong) ways to write an article outline with the help of AI software.
The Benefits of an Outline
If you're not convinced you should use an outline, or you're not sure what the point is, here are the benefits I've noticed while writing them.
1. First and foremost, you get benefits to memory. I don't know about you, but I have a common problem where I'll think up some ideas for sub-topics or points I want to make in a blog post, but then while writing the post, I'll forget to add them. By writing an outline, I can include those points in roughly the place in the post they would be, and make sure they're covered. It helps ensure that my content is dense with information and more valuable overall.
2. Secondly, it allows you to craft a logical flow from point A to B to C. You might know what your introduction is going to be, and what conclusion you want to reach at the end of the post, but you get muddy along the way. It's very easy to want to go from A to B to C, only to actually read the post you wrote and see that you left out B. People reading see the jump from A to C and feel like it's not very useful since it's a logical leap without any support. You have the support, but you didn't write it down.
3. One of the reasons I most heavily use outlines is for editing purposes. I'll draft up an outline with my key points, and then I'll think about the logic, the grouping, and organization, the structure of the piece. Is it top-heavy with a larger first section and light on conclusions? Is it spending too much time belaboring the point and not enough time supporting it?
One of the places this ends up being very handy is in those "top 50 tools to do X" posts I write. Like this one, for example. I'll put together the list, but before I write descriptions for any of them, I'll reorganize the list into logical groupings. Sometimes I'll choose to divide up the post into sub-formatted sections for each grouping, and sometimes not, but it's helpful for organizing them when I do.
4. Outlines are also useful for figuring out how to spread embedded content. You can add placeholders for images, figure out an even distribution for links, and arrange your content to your liking. This is great if you’re hoping to incorporate any branding materials and elements like logos, slogans, CTAs, and more.
5. Lastly (and perhaps most importantly,) outlines help make writing blog posts much easier. Writing from start to finish in one unbroken stream of consciousness is fine for a personal blog or a quick 500-word blog post, but that starts to fall apart when you get into 2,000 or 3,000-word posts. Writers who do this can end up with writer's block, and their blog posts sound more disjointed.
It's tough to know when to start a new section and when to end one when you don't have a basic structure yet.
The question is, how do you make one?
How to Write a Great Blogging Outline
Outlines in blogging are a little different than outlines when you're writing an academic paper or something of the sort. You aren't as rigidly constrained, and it's more of a tool to help you organize your thoughts than it is some assignment you're going to be graded on.
I'm going to write out a process here, but it's not quite the process I use. My process is a little less structured, in part because I've internalized some of these steps and kind of just do them mentally while I'm composing the others. Here's how I would help someone else do it, though.
0. Lay the groundwork for a solid post. The first thing you should do, which isn't really part of the outlining process, is to set yourself up for success. What do I mean by this? In particular, this is where your keyword research, topic ideation, and reader persona analysis comes into play.
You can write a blog outline about anything, but how do you know if the topic is worth writing about at all? You need to do the groundwork so you have a solid base from which to write, knowing that your content will have at least a baseline minimum amount of interest.
1. Research what's already out there. Some people consider this to be part of the groundwork, but I use it as the first step to composing my own outline. Virtually every possible topic you could want to write about has been written about before, by other blogs, possibly even your competitors.
Looking at these posts gives you a lot of useful information.
- How are their posts structured? Is it an effective structure, or can you optimize it?
- What points are they making? Are you making similar points or different points, and do you have anything new to add to the conversation? For example, there are a lot of other "how to write a blog post outline" posts out there, but I use a different process than they do.
- Are they including data or sources you didn't find? By supplementing your own sources with sources you find through your competition, you can out-do their posts with your own.
- Do they mention anything that throws a wrench into the works for your posts? Occasionally I've come up with a topic idea and, upon researching it, found clear counter-evidence that makes my post just flat wrong. I have to either drop the topic or retool the post.
- Did they miss any opportunities? The best way to compete is to strive to do better than the competition. Right? Looking at competing blog posts can be helpful to spot cracks in their article. If their article left you with unanswered questions, or if their list is smaller or more disorganized than it should have been, that's a great opportunity to build a better version of that resources.
Understanding what's already out there also helps you figure out where to begin.
It can stimulate ideas and give you more data points, all of which can be useful in the outlining process.
2. Figure out what your key points will be. I usually just write down the main points I want to cover in a big list as they come to me. The next step is to organize them, so don't worry about it too much right now. Just get everything on the page, so you can see it, so you can read it, so you can use it to inspire further points.
Eventually, you'll start to work this and the next couple of steps into one core process. You'll configure your brain to start coming up with these ideas in a logical fashion and you won't have to do as much reorganization. Still, though, this part of the process helps primarily to spot gaps in what you're covering, to write down important points you might otherwise forget, and to include salient links you absolutely need to include in your finished post.
3. Organize your points in a logical fashion. Once you have your big list of points and pieces of information, start to organize them. I tend to do this naturally while I'm writing them down, but there's always a few I want to move around.
During your initial brainstorming, it's not unusual for several of your points to end up sub-points for other points. You'll end up with what is basically a partial outline; some main topics, some sub-topics, room for another main topic or two, possibly even a few bits you want to cut because they aren't that relevant.
While you're going through this, think about questions you might want to ask to expand sections. More importantly, think about what questions your readers might have as they're reading through. Are there points they have answered later, or is it something you should include more information to cover? This is your best chance to add major points and nail down the overall structure of your post.
4. Break down each point into key facts, conclusions, or arguments. Every subheading should have several points it covers. I like to aim for 2-3 on average, but sometimes they expand and get away from me. Larger or more complex subheads might be an ideal opportunity to add in a bulleted list, for example. I also tend to seed in a topic or two that I don't intend to cover, but which can form the basis for a good internal link.
In a way, you can think of each section as a miniature blog post in the making. It's a smaller, narrower topic than the overall topic, but it still needs the intro, meat, and conclusion pattern that your overall post will have. Some topics will be large enough that you might want to break them up into a couple of sub-sections as well.
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5. Figure out what data is needed to support your arguments and insert them where necessary. I tend to start a lot of my blog posts with a data-first approach; I have interesting data I want to write about, and I flesh out my article from there. Other people start with a topic they find interesting or a keyword that seems applicable and then figure out their data and sources afterward. Either option is fine, it just comes down to your topic ideation process.
This step is where you start to fill out salient details in your outlines. If you draw a conclusion, make sure you have steps leading up to the conclusion. If you state something as a fact, make sure you have data sources to cite to that supports that fact. In general, you want to make your post as well-supported as possible, whether it's first-hand data, anecdotes, charts / graphs, or case studies you link to.
6. Balance the sections. Determine if something isn't relevant and can be cut, or if something is critical and needs to be expanded. Sometimes, try as you might, a point you wanted to make just doesn't fit. If it's a conclusion you really want to write about, you can set it aside and write another blog post about it another time. If it's just a fringe conclusion, then just cut it, it's fine.
I often find that I go overboard with my outline and have to cut a bunch in order to keep my blog posts to a reasonable word count. If you're not concerned with word count, you can always write something longer, though your audience may bounce before finishing it all. I know many people struggle to write longer posts, too, which can be a sign that you want to include more points throughout your post to expand upon.
Consider that each "section" of a post is generally going to be between 100 and 300 words long, depending on how deep you're covering it. Each of these steps, for example, is about 100-200 words. A longer section overall might be 400 or so, but if you let them get too much longer, you might consider breaking the whole thing down more thoroughly and adding another subheading.
In some cases, if a section is too big, splitting it into smaller, more digestible chunks (I'm talking about H3s) is the best course of action.
7. Rearrange your points for logical flow based on your expanded outline. At this point, you can look at your outline and decide if you like it or if it still needs some work. If it's not quite where you want it, you can return to step three and go through it all again.
This "step" isn't necessarily a step in a process, though. I find that the previous four steps are all kind of just a jumble in my own process. I don't rigidly stick to this step by step process, I kind of just write the outline and expand on it, tweaking it and editing it as I go. It might mean I write in a little bit less of an organized fashion than other people, but it's working well enough so far, right?
8. Write your first draft. Once you've gotten through the process and you're satisfied with your outline, start writing your draft. Take each point you've written down and expand on it. I often try to write my outline such that the points I write down serve as the opening sentence to a paragraph, but it's not always that easy. Expanding each point into a paragraph or two means you'll turn your outline into a blog post in no time.
As you write, you might find that your points aren't lining up the way you want them to. Sometimes you can bend your flow back in line, and sometimes you'll just need to retool your outline. Both are fine; remember, you aren't being graded on any of this.
9. Edit and improve your draft. Some people write pretty good first drafts and only need relatively minor tweaks to make them post-worthy. Other people will need two or three rounds of edits to hammer their drafts into top shape. Now is the time to do it, once you've taken your outline and expanded it into a draft.
10. Figure out your post title. Some people who provide their own processes say you should come up with your title first, and I don't disagree. I often come up with a working title as part of the step 0 phase all the way up at the top. At this point, your overall topic may have shifted and a new title would be better. After all, if you set out to write a "Top 25" list and it ended up as a "Top 50" list once you were done, you'll have to change it anyway. Right?
Free Blog Outline Templates
Now, I promised you some blog post templates up at the top, and I'm going to give you some. Here are some I've found and like.
1. HubSpot's Fill In The Blanks Template. This is a good template for a basic blog post, but it's short and it's very, well, template-like. It can get you something serviceable in the 500-1,000 word range, but you really want to take the whole thing and expand it for a good modern blog post.
"If you're looking for a _____________, the best method to ensure you end up with something that lets you _________________ is by looking for these things:
- Make sure your ____________ lets you _______________. If it doesn't, you'll have trouble ___________.
- Ensure your ___________ has a ____________ so you can ____________.
- Any good ______________ should let you _____________. This is important because _________________.
While not necessary, some great bonus features of a great _____________ are __________, ____________, and _______________."
2. Content Rules' Homework Sheet. This is a PDF from Content Rules with a template that works more like a worksheet. It lines up each element of a blog post and has you fill in what you'd want in that place, with some simple guidelines.
3. Writers Write's Post Template. This template is an infographic-style rundown of the elements of a blog post, in a compelling layout and order. It can help you with both layouts and with rationalizing the different parts of a post.
I'll say one thing before I let you go, though; template-based blog posts aren't usually my first choice.
Why? Well, when you're relying on a template, you're removing your voice and style from the equation. You'll have a better return if you simply hire a talented writer to do your blogging for you, at that point.
Can You Use AI to Generate an Article Outline?
Yes, but AI should always be used with caution.
Using AI to generate an article outline can be effective for several reasons:
- Quick and easy brainstorming: AI can generate an outline quickly, saving time and effort compared to manual brainstorming. At the very least, I've found it helpful as a brainstorming tool, even if some of the headings in the outline don't make much sense to me.
- Built-in objectivity: AI can provide a more neutral perspective, minimizing personal biases that may impact the quality of the outline. I'm guilty of this sometimes, especially if I'm impressed by some software or service - I may forget to mention the drawbacks or things I don't like about it.
- Customization: AI-generated outlines can be tailored to specific audiences, styles, or topics based on the input provided. You can tell it exactly how many bullet points you want, and it will create them for you.
- Consistency: AI can help ensure a coherent structure and logical flow throughout the outline... sometimes. You must spot-check and rewrite your content several times to achieve those results. For the most part, though, it's pretty consistent.
- Reducing writer's block: AI-generated outlines can help break creative barriers and inspire new ideas. Frankly, I've found that it's perfect when you have nearly completed your outline and need that last 10 or 20%.
However, you should never use an AI to blindly create your outline without any human intervention.
Here are some warnings and things to look out for when using AI-generated outlines:
- Accuracy: AI might generate incorrect or outdated information, so verifying facts before incorporating them into the article is essential. You would be amazed at how confidently I've seen it answer incorrectly. AI may not fully comprehend complex or nuanced concepts, leading to potential inaccuracies or misunderstandings.
- Overreliance: Overreliance on AI-generated outlines may diminish the writer's critical thinking and creative skills.
- Ethical concerns: AI-generated content can inadvertently promote biases or stereotypes if the training data is not diverse or representative. Most AI software (like ChatGPT) have pretty rigid ethical barriers, but people have already found out how to bypass these. The internet never ceases to amaze me.
- Incoherent structure: AI-generated outlines may sometimes lack a coherent or logical structure, requiring additional human editing. I've talked about this before; it might open a list of three items and never finish the first one. You may have to steer it a bit to keep it on the road.
- Plagiarism risks: AI may unintentionally generate content that closely resembles existing works, which could lead to plagiarism issues. Depending on the software, it may take an identical outline to a competing article and barely change it, if at all. However, using AI to help you write your outline is much safer than having it write your entire article, in my opinion.
- Spotty creativity: AI can analyze vast amounts of data, leading to unique insights and connections that might not be obvious to human writers. Still, I've found that it has a hard time with creativity, which can be hit or miss. Its humor is... interesting, to say the least.
- Outdated language models: AI has trouble providing timely and relevant content. The language model of GPT 3, 4.5, and 4 is usually more than a year old, so think of it as speaking to somebody from a year or two ago. They don't know anything about the newest iPhone, current events, or anything that happened recently.
Ultimately, AI-generated article outlines can be a valuable tool. Still, using them thoughtfully and in conjunction with human input and review is essential to ensure quality and originality.
Consider the pros and cons before deciding what suits your needs and goals best.
I believe using AI to help you with your outline is relatively safe. You start to get into more dangerous waters when you use it to write entire chunks of content automatically. You can read more about that in my recent article here.