A few weeks back, I stumbled across a two-part question from a content manager in a Slack channel: How do you outline blog posts and how much time do you spend outlining? 

In my experience when someone asks a question, there’s an underlying pain point they need help with. In this case, the person felt he was spending too much time on his process and wanted to know if this was, in fact, true.

I’ve decided to answer this two-part question across two blog posts, with today’s post focusing on the time spent outlining. But first, let’s look at why outlines are essential.

Why Create Outlines for Writers

There are three main reasons. Firstly, outlines give writers direction on where to take an article. Secondly, they ensure writers don’t waste time researching and including information that’s not relevant.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, they save you from having to make unnecessary revisions later on. You see, if you don’t create an outline, the writer may produce something you simply don’t want. You then get frustrated with the writer and the writer with you—something that could’ve been avoided had you spent just a little more time on outlining.


But, How Much Time Should You Spend Outlining?

In my experience, more detailed outlines lead to better final products. But, and this is a big BUT, as a content manager, you have a lot on your plate.

Not only do you have limited time to spend on outlining, but quite frankly, it’s not your job to create detailed outlines. Your job is to provide direction to the writer, and it’s the writer’s job to give you an outline based on this guidance.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “But if I only provide guidance and the writer is largely responsible for the outline, won’t this lead to the very problems outlines are meant to prevent such as the writer doing unnecessary work and me wasting time on edits?”

Well, it shouldn’t if you have a checkpoint in place right at the beginning where the writer has to share their initial outline with you for feedback. This checkpoint ensures you maintain proper control over how the final product turns out without having to do all the upfront work of outlining.

The key, though, is to make sure the outlines remain high-level (has an introduction, key headings, subheadings, and bullet points briefly explaining each section) so that:

  • The writer doesn’t spend time researching and including irrelevant information that only ends up getting scrapped
  • You have a bird’s eye view of the post

As Jane Flanagan, the Content and Brand Director at FreshBooks recently told me when I sent an outline that was a little too detailed: “It’s really helpful for me to see the 10,000-foot view on the story first.”

By taking a more strategic approach and placing trust in your writer to do the work, you should spend no more than an hour on your outline, which includes your primary keyword, basic structure, internal links and competitor research.

Indeed Kendall Walters, the Content Marketing Manager at Vidyard, confirms that it takes her one hour when creating briefs for SEO blog posts: “These include keywords, latent semantic indexing (LSI) terms, a basic structure, some competitor research and links to related existing content,” explains Kendall.

Hiba Amin, the Marketing Specialist at ChefHero, shares a similar view: 

“Outlining will usually take about an hour or so to complete. I’ve found the competitor analysis part to be super useful because I open up all of the external links that are within each article and sometimes it gives me access to some awesome studies that I can reference in my articles. It also helps me put a new angle on the piece that others haven’t used themselves!” 

Of course, that’s not to say that there aren’t any exceptions for outlining time—there are. As Teresa Matich, the Content Strategist at Clio explains:

“I take as little as 20 minutes but can also go well over an hour depending on how much initial research I do when setting topics for our content calendar, and how much of a rabbit hole the topic turns out to be (due to the nature of our business I usually end up reaching out to SMEs)! [It] Also depends on whether it’s a pillar or a spoke topic.”

The Bottom Line on Outlining Time

Blog post outlines are undeniably important. Not only do they give writers direction but they save you from unnecessary edits. But just because they’re important doesn’t mean you should spend hours creating them.

In fact, as you saw, one hour is generally all you need. If you spend more than an hour on any outline, it may be time to review your process and revisit the purpose of an outline.

Remember, your outline should merely provide direction so the writer can flesh out a more detailed outline. If your writer is unable to do this, it may be time to find another. 

How long do you spend outlining?

P.S. In the next post, you’ll learn about what to include in those outlines you send writers and what writers should typically send you (and yes I’ll provide a template).

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