Do you have a lot of awesome ideas in your head but don’t know how to put them into words exactly? Everyone gets “writer’s block’’ from time to time. Today we’re going to look at how to research and organize your ideas into outlines that would then be finalized with effective section headings.
The Importance of Planning Your Writing
First, let me clarify something: there’s no wrong way to write. There are only less effective ways to communicate in a given context. Writing a quality academic or business paper would require a much different style than a children’s book or collection of poetry.
In general though, to be an effective writer, you need to string together creative language and also adhere to established grammar and style conventions in a logical format. Writing is both an art and science. It’s a delicate balance to incorporate both elements perfectly.
Beautifully elegant poetry is difficult to read if it’s disorganized and vague. At the same time, the clearest and concise headings can be useless without valuable and unique content under them. The former is akin to Emily Dickinson while the latter is modern-day clickbait.
If you want to articulately communicate a message and grow an audience, you have to find a middle ground.
This principle is especially true for the digital world. Writing effectively online, for a business or just blogging for fun, requires targeting keywords, answering frequently asked questions, and organizing content in a hierarchy of header tags.
Everything starts with the planning phase. If you cannot organize an outline and stick to it, you’ll inevitably encounter writer’s block.
If you cook, you follow the recipe. While any recipe might be flexible and have some variation, you don’t start throwing food in the pot and hope for a scrumptious conclusion.
It’s the same idea with writing. Always plan first.
5 Easy Steps to Effectively Plan Your Writing
Start by picking a broad topic that interest you. Maybe that’s dinosaurs, civil engineering, the Shang Dynasty, or chocolate pudding.
Then, (1) brainstorm possible subtopics, (2) research what’s trending, (3) develop a working thesis statement, (4) craft an outline, and finally (5) draft powerful headers.
(1) – Brainstorm Blog Ideas
First, sit down and decide to work on one broad topic that interest you. Let’s say, for the purposes of this guide, you decide on pizza!
Pizza is awesome. It is, however, still a huge topic. Writing a massive post with everything there is to possibly know about pizza would be too overwhelming for most readers. You don’t want to write an encyclopedia. Instead, try to brainstorm subtopics that are more manageable for blog posting.
Blog posts should generally be between 500-2000 words, maybe more depending on the topic. That range is just enough to keep the reader’s attention and compete in search engine rankings.
In planning pizza-themed content, try to break up the information as much as possible into smaller subtopics. You should then sort the subtopics into themes and chunk all of them into several related posts.
For example, for pizza, I could guess there’s probably plenty of content opportunities on the following subtopics:
- The history of pizza
- Recipes to cook pizza
- Different styles of pizza
- Best pizza restaurants
- Pizza toppings
- Health issues related to pizza
- Comparing different opinions on pizza
Think of Location Keywords
If you feel like you don’t have enough subtopic, you can always add location keywords to your brainstorm list. For example, for “best pizza restaurants”, we could compare the main national chains, like Pizza Hut, Dominos, and Papa John’s… or we could break up the content by regions or states across the country. Then we could have a breakdown of different posts like this:
- Best pizza restaurants in the Southeast
- Best pizza restaurants in the Northeast
- Best pizza restaurants in the Midwest
- Best pizza restaurants in the Pacific States
When you get to research phase, you’re going to want to sort keywords by location themes to determine if these kind of geographical hierarchies are viable.
Those subtopics are all just themes I thought of off the top of my head. Brainstorming isn’t about being right or wrong. It’s just organizing what you already know from past experiences. It’s best to brainstorm with a buddy and toss ideas around as they come to you.
Be thorough in your brainstorm. Remember the idea is to narrow down broad topics as much as possible and sort them into themes. For SEO rankings, Google hates blogs that are constantly repetitive. You need to structure the blog section of your website with a logical hierarchy of categories that don’t overlap too much.
Developed by John Flavell, metacognition refers to reflecting and evaluating your own thought process. I took a course on child psychology at my university and somehow only this idea stuck with me.
As you’re brainstorming and after you confirm information in the research phase, analyze why you had these preconceived notions about the topic. Maybe you were influenced by the media, cultural assumptions, or personal biases. Undergoing some honest metacognition will help you understand the topic’s influence on the psychology of the reader.
For some people, pizza conjures fears of weight gain and compromising their workout regimen. Why do they feel pizza has a negative connotation? Well, greasy oils, fattening cheese, and carbs are main ingredients. Health conscience readers might want to know about vegetarian and all-organic pizzas. That’s just one example of how metacognition would help expand your content ideas.
(2) – Research Needs of Your Target Audience
Notice in my brainstorm I didn’t include the “pineapple on pizza” debate as a major subtopic. Even though it’s known in the meme world, it’s not exactly a serious topic that you could easily cover at least 1000 words of unique quality content.
Then again, the needs of your target audience should dictate your blog topics. Maybe your followers are entrenched in plebeian culture and would appreciate the meme’s analyze. On the other hand, they could be highly professional food critics. The question is, which part of the spectrum will you cater to? Obviously, you have to know your existing audience and write to address their needs and questions.
Your hosting platform will collect user data on visitors such as their IP address location, duration of their visit, what links they clicked, etc… While a good place to start learning about your audience, you’ll want to really understand them as people instead of data marks. In other words, learn what you can from them personally.
Collect User Surveys
To start, you should have a kind of feedback questionnaire available for your visitors on your website. Usually, these surveys are embedded into a contact request form. They could also be voluntary after an online purchase or particular page visit. It’s important to ask for very basic demographic questions with open-ended service based questions. You might want to include some of the following:
- How did you find out about us? (give them options with a fill in the blank “other”!)
- How old are you?
- Are you a student?
- What’s the best thing about our company?
- What’s something we can improve on?
- How would you overall rate our service 1-10? Explain
- What’s your preferred contact method?
- Would you recommend us to a friend?
After collecting a good sample of surveys, try to interpret for any trends and realistic issues you could write about in your blog.
Here’s the survey page for one of my favorite pizza resturants:
Maybe people in general really dislike the decor and setting. Blogging about the importance of the aesthetics and cleanliness of a pizza restaurant could help alleviate those concerns.
You might be surprised learn that most of your audience prefers being contacted by text message. Writing about how automated text message technology is used in the food industry could drive a lot of traffic. Then, actually explore ways to implement an affordable system.
Both Twitter and Facebook allow you to create polls for your followers. However, be aware social media surveys aren’t exactly scientific (i.e. someone could vote multiple times with alternate accounts to skew results).
That leads us to my next point…
Analyze Social Media
Collect data from your company’s social media. If you find what’s buzzing, you’ll find data to sort into your brainstorm categories or create new subtopic fields entirely.
Dig through the comments on your posts and take note of any significant questions and concerns of your followers.
(Don’t forget to actually follow up with a reply or direct message to people. But avoid the trolls!)
For most social media platforms, you can search keywords related to your industry to find what everyone is talking about online.
This strategy is probably easiest for Twitter since it allows you to conduct advanced searches that filter by location and date, and it gives you a list of related terms and influencers.
You can use several different programs to scan and analyze all trending hashtags across social media related to your industry. Some of the better ones, like Sprout Social and Tagboard, are geared towards agencies and thus quite expensive. You could try a free trial for the purposes of experimenting and learning. Otherwise, you’ll find plenty of free options.
I’ve used a few just see what’s popping in the world. Since #pizza is on my mind, here’s two of my favorite examples of some great free hashtag analyzers:
The program RiteTag has a ton of cool features for social media research! Just from the homepage, you can type a sentence or two of copy and push a magic button that will then suggest the most trending keywords to transform into hashtags. Somehow this wizardry works for images too.
Searching a word or phrase will bring up dozens of terms with data such as retweets, post with images or links, and mentions. The program conveniently ranks and sorts hashtags by popularity using symbols.
RiteTag has a browser plugin where you simply right-click any word on a website and it will suggest popular related hashtags.
I was curious what it would suggest for a selection of Macbeth… I am not sure #life would fit a play with a lot bloodshed and death.
The pro versions of RiteTag, with flexible payments plans from $12-49, allows you to schedule posts to social media directly from within the program, enhance options in other scheduling platforms (like Buffer or Hootsuite) and create custom interactive CTA buttons.
MAPD’s Tweet Map offers the best data of the many visual social media trend mapping programs. The full program has applications to several fields. You can integrate US census data, shipping lanes, even live taxi traffic down the street level.
It’s a free open source program but it’s complicated to install and then upload all your niche data. There’s an Enterprise edition where it appears you have to contact them for a quote.
Study Third Party Reviews
Everyone hates a critic, especially anonymous online snobs. Websites like Yelp and Foursquare are notorious venues for random soapbox rants. Worse still is the fact that you’ll probably encounter many AI automated reviews.
Despite the problems, online reviews are still useful if you weed out the fakes and stick to more professional websites, like getting listed on the Better Business Bureau and ConsumerAffairs for Brands.
Even if you don’t own a business yourself, reading reviews online gives you a sense of a company’s culture, customer base, and growth potential.
Conduct Keyword Research
You might find the science of keywords a diversion from just producing good content. It’s true you should always primarily write to satisfy your audience, not a search engine spider bot. You don’t want to spam keywords and compromise the quality of your writing. Yet, if you write logically with just a few targeted keywords in mind, you’ll expand your readership and the cover more blog topics.
There are a few major keyword programs that weigh results based on the search density, cost-per-click value, and other factors. Tools like SEMRush, Moz, and SpyFu each offer similar services but with different algorithms for their rankings.
None of the keyword trackers are cheap. If you’re a small business or individual like me, you might be stuck using use free trials over and over.
Thankfully, there are some tricks to mine SEO keywords other ways that save your wallet.
If you own your blog website, you have the ability to link it to Google Analytics for free with your Google account. From there, you can see all your page views, referrals, bounce rates, popular viewing times, and more…
To see what search terms visitors are using to find your site, navigate from the the left sidebar to “behavior”. Then, from the “site search” drop down option, select “search terms”.
This page gives you a graph representation of your blog keywords with a data chart below it.
If you’re new or don’t actively publish on your blog, you might not have any Google search term referrals. Start pumping out more quality content and distributing it.
The Google search engine results page (SERP) attempts to autocomplete your search queries as you type it by suggesting the most popular phrases that contain it. This is a great way to find long tail keywords associated with your blog ideas.
Just because a popular phrase includes your initial term doesn’t necessarily mean it’s valuable. Compare the search density of all the suggested keyword phrases by jotting down the number of results displayed just below the search bar.
(Sometimes autocomplete has quite humorous results. Next time you have the family together, play Google Feud. I’ll just say… the Internet is a weird place.)
Answer The Public
If SERP auto suggest research sound like hard work, that’s because it is. Luckily, there’s a beautiful website that does the labor for you: Answer the Public.
Type any search term into the program and it will compile all the popular related keyword phrases organized by questions, preposition, and comparison themes. Your results are neatly presented in branching diagrams that you can download for later. If you’re writing an FAQ, this is perfect.
Your blog readers have a lot of questions. The more you answer, the more useful you’ll become in Google’s eyes.
Just don’t let the strange man scare you away.
(3) – Develop Your Thesis Statement
Now you’ve got a list of writing ideas backed by research. It looks like a lot of problems, user questions, and trends. The next step is providing your solutions, answers, and unique content.
Summarize your main points in a one to two sentence thesis statement around the first paragraph of your writing. This lets the reader know immediately what to expect the rest of the blog.
Without a solid thesis statement in mind, you’ll ramble on in tangents and lose focus.
All the copywriting formulas repeat that you want to identify the problem and clearly offer a unique solution.
If you look back to the beginning of this blog post, you’ll see I identified the problem: everyone gets writer’s block.
Then, I immediately introduced my solution: better planning.
For a pizza chain, we could write a blog to address the problem of coupons not working online with our solution of a step-by-step tutorial to submit them correctly.
Now for thesis statements to work well in blogs, you actually have to present a real problem that could be reasonably solved by the reader with the content you present.
In other words, make your information very practical. You don’t want to overstate your claim and deceive your audience. World hunger is a problem that probably won’t be solved with buy one get one free pizza deals.
(4) – Craft Your Blog Outline
Your solution should be easy to understand but still broken up into multiple steps. Every process should be broken apart into sections to expand the content and generally make it easier to read.
If your research shows your audience demands dessert pizza, you’ll want to write that your menu has a cinnamon apple cream pie. However, just stating won’t make a very effective blog announcement.
Organize the content based on the benefits it serves the readers. Plenty of copywriting formulas focus on the emotional appeal of the sale. In my experience, emotions come naturally after you establish your product or idea is even functional. First, educate the reader there’s even a problem and your solution is valuable.
Try to fit all your thesis claims into a standard outline you can reuse for most writing. It could look something like this:
You can tweak an outline to meet any niche and format of writing.
As a former teacher, I understand not everyone is a linear thinker. Some people would rather visualize their planning through a kind of thinking map. My students loved these creative organizers because I encouraged them to draw illustrations and color code their boxes.
As long as it’s logical, do what works for you!
(5) – Finalize Powerful H-Tag Headers
Once you have a working outline, turn those section titles into powerful H-tag headers (H1, H2, H3, and so on…). These are HTML wrappings that signify the information is part it is in a tiered list. H1 tags are the most important and usually the blog title that displays in navigations (but not necessarily the “SEO title” that would appear in SERPs).
This is the header outline used for this blog post:
In Google Docs you can turn any text into an H-tag by highlighting it and pressing CTRL+ALT+1 (or 2, 3, etc… depending on the level you want).
These heading formats help Google understand the organization of your content for keyword rankings, so you should try to plug an appropriate keyword in them.
But then, you want to balance the SEO of headers with an emotional grab at the readers.
I could have just said “Outline” but that would be boring. “Craft Your” is my appeal to the human reader and “Blog Outline” clarifies it for Google.
Play around and experiment with alliteration, rhymes, metaphors, and other creative literary devices in your headers. Be sure to get feedback before and evaluate results after publishing.
Make sure the copy is accurate and yet very concise. 5-8 words for most major headers is a good length.
So there you go… that’s the gist of how to effectively plan blogs or any kind of writing.
Hope you all find this post helpful for writing whatever you’re passionate about in life.
If you loved this post, hire me to write your next blog! I offer freelance writing services at a fair rate and can finish most projects in less than a day.
Write to Inspire.