Think first, then write 3: create an outline structure

Mind Mapping for business writingIn the last two posts on business writing we looked at writing yourself a clear brief and researching your readers. In this third step, let’s look at designing your structure, and some of the tools and techniques you can use to organise your content.

3. Outline your structure

Often, organisations have preferred templates for their standard reports. If there isn’t a suitable one, or if you need to prioritise and organise content within a section of a large document, there are some free tools and techniques out there that can help, namely:

  • Mind Mapping
  • Silent brainstorming
  • Word Outline view

Mind Mapping

Mind Mapping is a simple technique for brainstorming and organising your ideas on a single sheet of paper. I use paper mind maps (like the one at the top of this post) for my bigger business writing tasks, like designing a new training course.

There are some good software packages like MindMeister and FreeMind which you can also use collaboratively with people in other offices.

See this simple tutorial on Mind Mapping applications for business from Teamwork International for more.

Silent brainstorming

Similar to Mind Mapping, but with post-it notes, ‘silent brainstorming’ is a facilitation technique to quickly collate the ideas of several people in a room. See Steve Rogalsky’s excellent Slideshare tutorial on silent brainstorming using post-its for an overview of the process.

Invite a group of relevant people, such as writers and subject matter experts, to a short meeting. Write up your one-line brief and the key results of your audience analysis on a flip chart.

Step 1: Give each of the participants a bunch of post-its and a pen. Ask them to brainstorm everything they can think of relevant to the task – one idea per post-it – for 5 minutes or so. Emphasise that this is brainstorming, so there are no ‘bad’ ideas. The objective is to generate as many ideas as possible in a short space of time.

Step 2: When the time is up, ask them to stick their post-its on a wall or table.

Step 3: Invite the group to assemble the post-its into clusters of similar ideas.

Step 4: Give each cluster an appropriate heading, and write it on a different colour post-it note. For example, if we are designing a proposal for investment in a new e-learning system we might have headings like ‘Problems with current system’, ‘Costs’, ‘Benefits’, ‘Training’ and so on. The post-its within each cluster are your subheadings.

Outline in Word

Write up your headings and subheadings in a document, and sequence them into a logical structure. Word Outline view is a useful tool for this – in it you can move headings up and down the hierarchy without having to copy and paste.

I recommend Chris Grover’s YouTube tutorial on Word Outline as once discovered, people often wonder how they ever managed without it in their business writing.

Once you have your structure sorted out, you can start writing anywhere – there’s no need to start at the beginning. We will talk more about that in the next post on drafting your document.

In the meantime, good luck and don’t forget to sign up on for my free PDF ‘The Seven Deadly Writing Sins’ on the right sidebar if you haven’t already.


PS Do you or your organisation need help with business writing skills? Click here for details of my business writing courses and one-to-one coaching.

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