Content with the Technical: Drafting Deliverables by Outline

(Photograph courtesy of Daniel McCullough via Unsplash)

Reformed Outliner’s Testimonial:

I always hated outlines. In college it felt like I had some sort of mental block, I was able to finish my essay assignments without much issue, but when it came to outlining… everything would fall apart. Or worse, it would take tedious hours to construct and prove worthless when I tried to use it! At best, outlining was just not for me and at worst, I assumed outlining was something less confident thinkers needed to collect their thoughts. Geez. How did I fit such fathead-thinking through doorways? Luckily, this all changed after I landed my first technical writing gig and discovered the power of outlines…

Today, we are going to start our two-part series on how outlines turn the most complicated process examinations into easy-to-digest component pieces. Outlines also give us the opportunity to review the notes we’ve taken during the research phase of the project writeup. 

Do the RESEARCH:

Before we sit down to put thoughts to paper and create the outline we’ll use for the next writing project, we must first get through ALL of the necessary research to complete the task. Spend the time creating notes, defining jargon, and understanding the process being described. This should also include any available reports or examples from prior years, make sure to exhaust company resources: open folders and dig into available material. It will make drafting so much easier later on!

CLICK HERE for more strategies on effective research and notetaking!

Confirm with Style:

Next, if the company or organization utilizes a style guide for new content generation make sure to have that file open and available for easy reference. The guide will act as a roadmap of sorts for what information goes where and how the information should be crafted. This isn’t a requirement, but it will cut down on editing demands later on, while also helping align varied writing styles to one concise voice. 

You can find more info on style guides HERE!

After we’ve gone through all of the research demands for the project and consulted the most relevant style guides… we are NOW ready to start our outline! 

Develop Anchors:

This part may feel a little creative, but there’s nothing to it! At this point, we’ll take the many lines of notes we’ve scribbled down, and begin condensing those lines into short two or three word phrases. Let’s call these new creations Anchors. These anchors function just as they sound by connecting to the original (much longer) idea. After we’ve finished going through our notes, we’ll have a full list of anchors.

Anchor Example:

Longer note, “Component stack was too stressed causing system failure.”

Condensed note, this to, “Component Stress failure.

Our condensed note is easy to connect with the larger original, while also eliminating a ton of extra words that aren’t doing enough. We’ll go into more detail next week when we wrap up this discussion, but for now just follow that process for the remaining notes and then build the outline from this list of anchors!

Technical Writing Insight:

The next step is to identify the most efficient order sequence for these anchors. This will vary by subject matter, project specifics, and industry-style norms, but the root of this tactic will apply to nearly any writing assignment. Technical writers are most concerned with identifying process norms or creating step-by-step guides, so look through the anchors and identify the natural starting point. 

Quick aside, we’ll go through the best practices for identifying process norms and step-by-step guides in a later blog post… They share a lot of similarities with traditional creative writing. Stay tuned!

Drop Anchor:

Okay, back to the show! After we’ve set our anchor order make sure to spend some time fine-tuning both the ordering and the specific anchor phrases. If the company workflow model allows for outlines to be approved, this would be an excellent time to pass the outline along to a review manager. 

This may require a bit more fine-tuning or explanation of intention, but for the most part, all of the information will be there if we spent enough time researching.

Once approved, we are all set to go about expanding out these anchors once again (you know, complete the writing assignment!), but this time we’ll do so in complete sentences! 

Next week, we’ll wrap up this subject by going through some specific outline examples, showcasing some favored tips and strategies for fixing broken outlines and expanding out anchors to fully reveal the information. 

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Published by Jeffrey Graessley

Jeffrey Graessley is an R&D technical writer, poet and blogger (right here) @ Content with the Technical! Subscribe for weekly updates every Sunday morning!

3 thoughts on “Content with the Technical: Drafting Deliverables by Outline

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