How to Write Like a Professional: Outline Writing Skills

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Do you want to improve your writing skills? Since I started blogging, I have talked to so many people who have told me, “I’d love to start a blog! I have so many ideas about fitness/fashion/parenting/crafting/name-your-topic, and I think I could really help people! The only problem is, I’m afraid my writing may not be good enough.”

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The good news is, writing is a skill that can be learned, honed, and not-quite-perfected-but-close. (You’re not a real writer until you’ve started to obsess over words and paragraphs, never quite feeling like the piece is done until you hit a deadline and have to just STOP TINKERING AND SUBMIT THE THING ALREADY!)

With that in mind, I’ve decided to start a new series on my blog called Writerly Wednesdays. My intention is to help bloggers improve their writing skills to make your posts as engaging, entertaining, and un-put-downable as possible. You may have noted the irony in the fact that neither “writerly” nor “un-put-downable” are real words, and this series is aimed at helping people learn to write well. I’m aware of this. As a writer, I reserve the right to invent words as I see fit.

Later in the series, I will get to my reasons why it’s OK to break a few syntax rules, as long as you’re doing it with purpose and intent. But for this first post, I wanted to focus on one of the most basic skills a writer should have: building a framework for your piece, or outlining.

Why Is a Framework Important?

Your post’s framework is an outline, or blueprint–for you. For your reader, the framework is their invisible tour guide. They might not even realize that the guide is there, but it leads them through your article so that they can not only understand what they’re reading, but also why they should care about it. This latter piece is just as important as the former. If your reader doesn’t have a reason to care, they won’t finish reading the article. They may not even start.

How does a framework accomplish these two goals? First, it breaks your piece up into manageable chunks, sometimes with subheadings. These chunks are stacked in order, so that the information in each section builds upon the previous section and moves your narrative along toward a satisfying conclusion.

Second, the framework identifies the main points that your audience came to learn, and it presents it in a clear, engaging manner. This is how you give your readers what they want, and keep them reading until the end.

What Does a Framework Look Like?

There are 3 main types of outlines, 1. The 5 paragraph essay, 2. Sequence of events or instructions, and 3. Narrative.

1. The 5 paragraph essay. This option is, in my opinion, kind of boring and contrived, but it is the most straight forward approach to outlining. If you are new to writing articles, or you are unsure of which type of framework you need, you might want to start by outlining a 5 paragraph essay, then restructure the framework to fit your needs. It looks like this:

Download my free, 5 paragraph essay worksheet

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I. Introduction and hook: Start with a hook that grabs your reader’s attention. Then set up the topic and define the problem with 3 main points. Finish with a thesis statement–A single sentence that explains the purpose and approach of the essay.

II. Body: This section is 3 paragraphs long, and supports each of the 3 main points you made in your introduction.

III. Conclusion: The fifth paragraph summarizes the essay, using similar language to the introduction. Finish with a concluding statement that restates the thesis, and tells the reader why it matters. Think of it as thesis+”so what?”

**A Note about paragraphs: In a blog post, you always want to make sure to include lots of white space. Big blocks of text are difficult to read, especially on a screen. So while each of these sections specifies a number of “paragraphs” that should be included, when you post it on your blog, you should break up the paragraphs so that you don’t have more than 3-4 lines together.

2. Sequence of events, or instructions. This is one of the more popular styles for blog posts. Use it for how-to’s, recipes, or a re-telling of an event.

I. Introduction and hook: Again, you need to open with a paragraph or two that hooks your reader and sets up the topic of your article. You can make it more interesting by including a personal story about how you have used the information in your own life. For example, if your article is about how to pack for a family camping trip, tell your readers about your last camp out! Be sure to include entertaining anecdotes about some mishaps you’ve experienced that you want to help your readers avoid.

II. Step-by-step instructions: This may seem fairly obvious, but here is where you lay out each step. Use as many paragraphs as you need to adequately explain your instructions. You can also construct this as a simple list post. Lists are really popular because they can be (but aren’t always) quick and easy to write. But more importantly, they’re easy to read. Check out one of my list posts, “How to Fold a Shirt in 13 Easy Steps.” It’s my smart ass attempt to describe my daughter’s method of avoiding her chores at all costs.

III. Conclusion: Finish up with photos and a description of your final product. You should also ask your readers to comment and let you know if they try it.

3. Narrative. This is my favorite type of blog post. It’s the framework I use most often. This is the one to use for “lifestyle” type posts, or any post in which you want to tell a nuanced and detailed story. Unfortunately, narrative articles don’t have set framework that I can outline for you. I can, however, give you some tips for outlining your own.

I. First, brainstorm everything you want to include in your article. Start out with a broad idea, and then get more specific and detailed as you go. If you include some specific piece of information, ask yourself if your readers will understand it by itself, or if it needs to be preceded by some other information. Make sure you get all your points down in an order that makes sense.

II. Open with a hook and a broad idea. Present a problem. Just like the first two examples, narratives need a hook too. Your hook is what catches the reader’s attention and makes them want to read your article. It should be something memorable that evokes emotion of some kind.

III. Offer at least one solution, and illustrate your points with stories. If you write a lifestyle blog, this is what your readers are here for! They want to know about you! So don’t just say, “Being a mom is so damn hard.” SHOW your readers how flipping overwhelming it is by telling the story about the time your kid melted down so badly at Target that the cashier thought you were kidnapping her and you had to prove to the cops that you were, in fact, the owner of that little demon whom you love so much.

IV. Wrap it up by returning to your original broad idea, but hopefully having gained some insight along the way. In order for your ending to feel satisfying, you need to have touched all of the necessary points to make your article feel “complete.” Don’t leave any loose threads. And close with a memorable line that will make your reader smile and say, “Yes! That’s exactly right!”

Let’s take a look at one of my “narrative” lifestyle articles. This one is called “Be Your Own Kind of Beautiful.” I published it nearly 4 years ago, and it is still one of my most popular posts. It was also picked up by Red Tricycle.

Here is my hook: I have a confession to make. I’ve never been completely happy with my appearance. What woman has? (Maybe Tootsie?)

You see how it’s a little bit cute, will hopefully get a giggle, and introduces a broad topic that most women can relate to? Namely, body confidence. This definitely grabbed a lot of readers, because hundreds of women read it, and quite a few commented too.

The problem: Lack of body confidence.

Here’s one of the stories that I used to illustrate my lack of body confidence: 

“I’ve never been completely happy” is actually a mild way of putting it. I’m pretty hard on my reflection. It would make my husband crazy. I’d look in the mirror and go, “Ugh, look at this ponch on my belly. With the stretch marks it’s like a deflated balloon.” He’d try to reassure me, and I’d just cross-examine him like some vicious defense attorney.

Me: I hate my hair.

Him: What do you mean? You look beautiful.

Me: Are you really looking at my hair?

Him: Of course.

Me: You can’t see all this friz? Admit it, my hair looks frizzy.

Notice how I did the dialogue like a script rather than with quotes and dialogue tags. This is just one way of doing it, but it can be effective in blogs and on social media.

I got more specific and detailed later in the post: 

So, a couple of years ago, I decided I was going to change the way I think about my body for two reasons. Emma and Sophia. I’ll be damned if I’m going to pass on my self-loathing to my daughters.

I started off just trying my best to refrain from making negative comments about myself in front of them. And let me tell you, it hasn’t been easy. If they’re awake, they’re listening to me. (Well, not listening per se, but they’re hearing me, anyway.) They could be chasing each other around the house or completely absorbed in their favorite book, but if I even mutter something under my breath, they’ll go, “What did you say, Mommy?”

Me: (Silence)

Girls: Mommy! I said, ‘What did you say?!’

Me: Nothing girls, I was talking to myself.

Girls: But what did you say?! Tell me, Mommy! TELL ME!

I offered a specific solution and gave examples: 

That day I discovered something. A “fake it til you make it” approach to self-confidence. I started making a conscious effort not only to refrain from hating myself in front of them, but to say positive stuff about myself in their presence as often as possible. “Doesn’t Mommy look pretty in this dress?” “Look how strong my muscles are.” “Don’t you loooove my new haircut?”

And this is how I wrapped it up:

But seriously, start telling someone that you’re beautiful. If you don’t have daughters, tell your husband. Tell your boyfriend. Tell your mom. Tell your sister. Pick something good about your body that you can say with a straight face, run straight to your best friend, and say it. My butt rocks in these jeans. Doesn’t this color bring out my eyes? Check out this dress I bought for my cousin’s wedding. I look gorgeous in it!

Just fake it til you make it. I promise, it feels much better to love the way you look.

Do you see how that last line refers back to the original problem, lack of body confidence? Read the full post if you want to see how I organized the whole thing.

If you want to take your writing to the next level, or you feel like you need a little bit of professional help, I offer editing and critiquing services. Email me at nicoleroderwriter@gmail.com and let me know if I can help!

What other topics would you like to see covered in this series? I’m working on more articles to help bloggers improve their writing skills. I’m also getting ready to launch a few web-based writing courses. Would you be willing to take a quick survey to help me decide which topics to cover? It will only take a minute. Thanks! Here’s the survey!

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How to write like a professional: Writing tips for bloggers. 3 Types of Article Outlines_ Writing tips for bloggers. Build a frame for your post.

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20 comments

  1. I’ve always enjoyed writing, but I’ve never had any formal training specifically as a writer. After looking through your frameworks, it seems like most of my posts fall into the “narrative” category. And we all know Shakespeare used to make words up all the time, so if it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for us too! #ablogginggoodtime

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Awesome! Nothing wrong with a little 5 paragraph essay when you need something quick and simple, but it’s fun to change it up now and then too. Do you have any ideas for other writing related topics that I should cover?

      Like

  2. A really interesting read Nicole with some great tips. My career involved a lot of writing and I have recently started freelancing and turned my hand to content writing. There are so many different styles and formats for writing based on a variety of briefs that sometimes when I come to writing for my own blog I hit a wall, so it’s good to step back and consider some of the pointers you have outlined. I look foward to your other posts on this subject. #ablogginggoodtime

    Liked by 1 person

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