The Writer’s Guide to Skeleton Outlines

When I first heard the term “skeleton outline,” I assumed that it must be some kind of tool for horror writers.

I kid, of course. When you think about it, though, freelance writing can be kind of horrifying, especially when you’re attacking a new topic or trying to figure out how to please a new client. But that’s where skeleton outlines come in and, ironically, help to alleviate some of the horrors.

What is a skeleton outline?

Just like a skeleton defines the basic shape of a body and provides something for the muscles, tendons, and such to attach to, a skeleton outline marks out the structure of a piece of writing. It can be used in fiction writing, article writing or a copywriting project as a tool to help plan and draft work.

If you’re new to skeleton outlines, the name will tell you most of what you need to know!

Why use a skeleton outline?  

Skeleton Outlines

A skeleton outline has one primary purpose: to help you write more efficiently.

Think of it as a GPS for your writing. If you don’t enter a destination and at least take a cursory glance at the route you plan to take, you probably won’t end up on the most efficient route. You’ll get there (probably), but it might take longer.

Efficiency matters

The scenic route is fine if you’re going on a camping trip, but you’re a freelance writer. Chances are good that the longer you take to write a particular piece, the less you’ll earn that day. A skeleton outline keeps you on track so you can produce more words without compromising quality.

Remember, it’s not just about writing fast. Anyone can write fast, but the quality of the result can be questionable. Skeleton outlines help you write quickly and well. You hit your deadline and turn in something good enough to get you re-hired.

As freelancers, most of us can’t afford to turn in bad work, nor do we want to because our reputations are on the line.

Why does it work?

Creating a skeleton outline is a time investment, albeit a minor one. For this method, you take a few minutes to write out the points you want to make in your article. The result is a simple document that keeps you on track in several different ways.

1. Freedom to be inspired

Some writers assume that an outline limits your creativity, but more often it’s the opposite. Whenever I write without an outline, I feel bound to whatever sub-topic I’m working on at the moment. 

Let’s say that I’m working on a 1,000-word article about training dogs, and I’m in the middle of a paragraph about positive reinforcement. Suddenly I decide I need to write about the history of behaviorist theory and how it relates to animal training. 

If I try to do anything more than making a note about it, though, I’ll lose track of…  wait, what was I talking about? Oh, that’s right, positive reinforcement. 

2. The bucket effect

The elements of your skeleton outline are like empty buckets, each of which contains blocks of a certain color. If you find that one bucket would work better somewhere else, you can move it, and all the colored blocks with it.

Now imagine that all of your colored blocks are lying on the floor individually. How much longer is it going to take to move all of the blue blocks without leaving any of them behind?

3. Structured research

A skeleton outline helps you to stop flailing about the Internet, looking for statistics that probably relate to your topic. Your skeleton outline provides you with sub-topics that let you be a lot more specific with your search. I’ve found that the more specific I can be with my research, the less likely I am to follow random leads until I can’t remember where I started.

How do you make a skeleton outline?

Outlining your writing

Now that we’ve covered the “why it works,” let’s move on to “how.”

Fun fact: if you do a Google image search for “skeleton outline,” you’ll mostly find craft templates and coloring pages featuring human bones. (Seriously. Try it.) Scroll down for a while, though, and you’ll start to see documents that look like a book’s table of contents.

That’s essentially what a skeleton outline is—a table of contents for your piece. It’s not a detailed or necessarily formalized outline like those you may have written in school, complete with sub-topics and full sentences. 

A skeletal outline is really “just the bones,” pun fully intended.

Take a look at the example below (with thanks to AcademicHelp.net).

Skeleton outline

You can use this template to create a skeleton outline for almost any piece of copy you’re going to write. You’ll replace the placeholders like First Point, Detail, and Conclusion with specific references to your topic and sub-topics, but the outline won’t get more complex. 

Nor should it. For the commercial writer, a complex outline is counter-productive.

How do you use your skeleton outline?

Once you have your skeleton outline complete, it’s time to flesh it out. 

If you’ve never tried this before, you’ll be amazed at how much quicker you end up with a great finished product.

Step 1: Choose your main points  

Let’s say you’ve been asked to create an article about how to concentrate while you’re writing. Your first step is to choose your main points. You decide on:

  1. Choosing music to write to
  2. The Pomodoro Technique for self-accountability
  3. Handling inevitable distractions

If you’re happy with your three main points, or however many you decide to use, you’re ready to move on to details. 

Step 2: Find your details

There’s an awkward experience that many writers are familiar with. You’ve chosen a topic and backed it up with three or four supporting details, each of which flows into the next one. You’ve started to research one of the details and found out that actually the rest of your article comes out of that supporting point instead, so you have to go back and start over.

I’ve been there. It’s terrible.

On the other hand, if I’m using an outline and one of my main points won’t work, I can replace it as necessary without having to re-write much content or throw out all of my research.

Step 3: Write

If you’ve been diligent in your approach to the first two steps, this last one will be a breeze. Your research is done, the piece is structured; now all you have to do is translate the information into sentences and paragraphs.

You can do this. You’re a writer.

Conclusion

Is it possible to write without a skeleton outline? Of course. The shorter the piece, the easier it is to write off the cuff. Use an outline, though, and you’ll almost certainly create better work in less time. 

That’s the freelance Holy Grail right there.

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