The fear of a blank page is real.
You open a new Google Doc and the white space overwhelms you. It’s your job to turn that blank page into a 2,000-word piece of content.
Where do you even start?
I felt that fear every time I wrote a new piece of content.
That was until I started outlining every piece of content before I wrote it.
Why I outline every piece of content
A content outline does what it says on the tin: it outlines how your blog post will look, the headings you’ll include, and the nuggets of advice that you want to include.
It’s something I create for every piece of content I create–regardless of whether it’s an email for my list, a client blog post, or a massive 10,000-word white paper.
Why? Because an outline solves the whole “fear of the blank page.”
Doing a bit of pre-writing research, and knowing what direction my content is going in, gives me a place to start. I know which statistics and subheadings I’m using. And I know what call to action I need to segue into.
Sure, I’m starting with a blank page when I’m creating the actual outline.
But a few bullet points here and there is much easier to do than write a few well-written paragraphs when you’re starting from a blank Google Doc.
Plus, having a content outline stops me from falling down rabbit holes during the time I’ve blocked for writing. I separate research and writing into two different tasks.
My research time is just for research; that’s where my outline comes into play. I’ll find quotes, look for research studies, and find case studies to support my points. That’s my time for going down rabbit holes and seeing what I can find.
But my writing time is just for writing.
I don’t need to hop out of my document and to find a statistic–and likely find myself watching an unrelated YouTube video. (It can take up to 23 minutes to get back on-track.)
It’s all there in my outline.
The added bonus for freelance <> client relationships
A content outline is the secret sauce for anyone writing content.
But there’s an added bonus for freelancers working with clients (and vice versa.)
A fleshed content outline acts as your final check-in point before the freelancer writes the full draft.
There’s nothing worse than having a client send a project brief, and each side having their own interpretation.
For example: The client sends an email saying “help us rank for “SEO tips”.” They think it’s obvious that the content should be in a listicle format, but you spend 4 hours writing a how-to post. In the end, the client doesn’t like it, and you’ve wasted 4 hours doing something you’ll need to:
- edit extensively, or;
- re-write again.
A solid content brief can help ease those problems.
But sending an outline before the full draft gives you both the chance to check you’re on the same page. There’s no “oops, I thought you’d cover that,” or “you’ve missed this” when the final draft is submitted.
You (and your client) know exactly what you’re going to cover with an outline. Anything you’ve missed/needs tweaking gets squished before you spend more time writing.
In fact, that’s why I show my process in response to enquiry emails:
What my content outline includes
Convinced you to create an outline for your new piece of content?
Great, but my job isn’t done yet.
Poor research is almost as bad as none at all. You’ll need to make sure you’re actually working from a good outline to get everything you’re going to need during the writing stage.
Here’s what my content outline includes:
- Secondary keywords
- Meta title and description
- 6-10 headline options
- Blog post structure (with headings)
- Supporting research for each heading (including links to research papers, statistics, or case studies)
- Call to action
Notice that my outline doesn’t include word counts? Read more here on why I don’t think word counts matter.
Don’t fancy doing this from scratch? Grab the outline template I use for every piece of content right here:
6 content research tips to flesh your outline
Most of the content outline is straightforward. (The template points you in the right direction, referencing some of my favorite tools for each.)
But where most people stumble is the actual content research stage: the part where you’re making a list of things to cover, gathering references, and thinking about which direction you’re going to take.
Here are my six go-to tips for researching a new piece of content for my outline:
1. Check the competition
Heading to Google is my first place to start when researching content because it gives me a rough idea of what I’m competing with.
The only problem? Check the Google results for your target keyword and I’ll bet you’ll see a bunch of articles all sharing the same stuff.
Benji of Grow and Convert calls it mirage content:
“Content that looks good on the surface, but after giving it a deeper look, you realize it’s nothing but high-level fluff.”
I always want to steer clear of re-hashing the same, over-used tips when I’m writing a new piece of content. So, I head to Google and look at my competition. If I want to take their SERP position off them, I need to beat what they’re writing about.
My goal at this stage is to pull things none of those articles include.
I want my content to be new and unique; not the same statistics you see in 50% of the top-ranking posts for a specific keyword. The best way to do that is to look what they’re doing, and find a unique spin.
Anything that fits that criteria goes straight into my outline.
2. Look at Google’s PAA section
We want to make sure our piece of content is more comprehensive than anything else on the topic. Our competitive research helps us with that.
You can also take that a step further with Google’s People Also Ask section.
This is a list of related phrases that previous searchers also ask after searching for the same keyword:
I use this information as a starting point for my structure.
For example: If I was writing a post about content strategy, my outline might look something like this:
- H2: What is a content strategy?
- H2: The benefits of creating a content strategy
- H2: How to create a content marketing strategy
Talking about each of those points makes sure my content is comprehensive enough for someone searching for information about content strategy.
Plus, with designated subheadings for each section, I’ve got the chance of claiming the featured snippet box for those terms. A well-explained answer can easily knock those answers out of the box–and replace it with mine.
3. Check Reddit or Quora threads
Sometimes, your research will lead a dead end.
There are certain topics that nobody covers in-depth on their website. But even for those that do, you run the risk of only seeing a biased company-view of the topic.
That’s where forums and online communities come into play.
Searching similar terms on Reddit, for example, pointed me to this thread. It was posted by a Grammarly user who had their own concerns, with other people chiming in below:
The same concept applies for basically any topic you’re writing about.
The top 10 results for “SEO tips”, for example, are likely written by companies who have SEO tools. They want to rank for that keyword to mention their tool–which isn’t any good for you if you’ve got a competing tool.
However, online communities like:
…can help you find real people (not companies) talking about that subject.
Take a look at the questions they’re asking, and the answers they’re getting from other community members. Can you package that into your blog post? If so, add it to your outline.
4. Find supporting data
I think that links to research, case studies, and statistics make any piece of content 10x better. Why? Because:
- Content with statistics feels more credible
- It gives an unbiased opinion (often from an expert)
- It helps with promotion after publishing
My outline is the place where I jot down all of the data I want to use in my final piece.
Here are some search terms that help me find this data:
- “TOPIC” + statistics
- “TOPIC” + case study
- “TOPIC” + report
- “TOPIC” + research
- “TOPIC” + examples
That pulls up a bunch of data for me to reference in my content. So, I drop the part I want to use, alongside the source link, in my outline. I don’t need to go digging mid-writing to find it again.
(My friend Marijana shared an incredible list of places to find data points for your content. Bookmark that to use during this stage.)
5. Use Google’s “Talk to Books” for added context
My life changed when I found this tool. (And that’s not an exaggeration.)
Truth is: I’m not a reader. But I think writers are so smart when they reference a bunch of research that I’ve never even heard of before–including quotes from books I haven’t (and will probably never) read.
Google’s Talk to Books tool helps me do with my own writing.
It scans thousands of books to pull quotes from authors talking about that topic. You can reference that in your content to add a third-party opinion… without having to read every marketing book to find quotable snippets.
Let’s put that into practice. I’m writing a blog post about B2B content marketing, and Google pulled these two quotes I can reference in my content:
How easy was that?
I don’t need to spend hours reading marketing books, highlighting my favorite parts, and forgetting about them. Just use this tool to find exactly what you need–from books you might never have read.
6. Send HARO requests
Speaking of expert quotes, a great way to boost the shareability of your content is to include unique quotes.
Use services like HARO to find people with expertise on a specific topic.
Those people then have the chance to submit a unique quote for you to include in the content. In return, they get a backlink. (Which usually means they’re happy to help with content promotion.)
Why not let these expert quotes direct the structure of your content?
One of my clients, Databox, let their expert quotes completely guide their blog post structure. The quotes they collect form the bulk of their finished pieces without much extra narrative.
But you don’t have to give your expert quotes full control. You can use them to influence your outline–not dominate it.
How? By finding the responses you want to include, and building an outline that lets you weave them in.
Here’s what that might look like:
Bear in mind that it’s important to do ask for expert quotes a few days before you make a start on the outline. It takes a few days to collect results.
Don’t forget your content outline template
Content outlines are my saving grace whenever I create a new piece of content.
I don’t get “fear of the blank page” syndrome any more. Plus, I don’t find myself stuck in a rabbit hole after popping out of my Google Doc tab mid-writing to look for a supporting statistic.
Start with this outline template, and tweak as you start to research your next piece of content.
It’s the exact one I work from for all of my content.