One of the most difficult obstacles in all writing is determining how to structure a document when no clear structure exists. For example, if you were going to blog about three new features of a new Apple product, the logical way to structure the post would be to discuss Feature 1, Feature 2, and then Feature 3. In this case, the structure is fairly straightforward. However, what if you want to write a corporate blog about why you enjoy working for your company? You can easily see that the structure of that blog is less obvious than the Apple blog. Enter writer’s block!
When you find yourself facing a not-so-obvious message structure, what should you do? Here’s one incredible outlining technique—bottom-up outlining. This outlining process follows three simple steps: (1) brainstorming, (2) categorizing, and (3) sequencing. If the word outlining causes you to want to stop reading this article, I encourage you to keep reading: bottom-up outlining may not be the same outlining you learned about in middle school.
Step 1. Brainstorming
When most people think about outlining, they think top down—first select the major categories they want to include in their messages, and then work downward to fill in the details. Bottom-up outlining turns that process on its head. Start with details and then work upward to the broad categories.
To create the details, brainstorm. If you’re brainstorming on a computer, open Notepad or Word and begin creating a random list of whatever comes into your mind. Using the example of the benefits of working for your company, for instance, you might come up with the following:
Step 2. Categorizing
Once you have captured your random list, you are ready to move on to the second step—categorizing. To categorize, analyze your list and notice any similarities that exist between individual items on your list. Then move the related items into groups, with an appropriate title for each group. These titles will become the major categories for your final document. Continuing with the corporate blog example, here is how I grouped my random list:
Step 3. Sequencing
The final step in bottom-up outlining is to arrange the categories in the most appropriate way to meet your message objectives. Depending on your purpose, the audience, the context of your message, and the content itself, you might order those categories in different ways:
Why is bottom-up outlining so effective? First, creating a free list works with information as it currently exists in your brain—it doesn’t force you to first create categories. Second, creating a free list is also great for spawning new ideas that you might not have considered otherwise. Third, bottom-up outlining generates order out of chaos—taking unstructured information and methodically finding an appropriate structure for it, resulting in an organized, understandable final message for readers.
Forget all the negative experiences you had with top-down outlining back in middle school. Bottom-up outlining is brain friendly, easy, and very effective. Try the three easy steps of brainstorming, categorizing, and sequencing on your next blog or email. You’ll see how well it works.
We're Bill Baker and Matt Baker, and we hope these posts will help you more effectively teach business communication. If you like what you read, please consider reviewing our business communication textbook.