It was said that Mozart could write an entire symphony in his mind. Then, when he was ready, he simply picked up a quill and wrote it all down. His first draft was often his final draft.
Creating an outline for a boss or client to review is like having a second writing project. Writing and presenting the outline can add up to 50 percent more time than would normally be required to complete the project. So take this into account when you quote the job and schedule the work.
That was nice for Mozart. But the rest of us mortals typically write in layers, starting from some rough notes and ideas and then progressing through several drafts until we arrive at something that appears to be final. In other words, we revise, revise, and then revise some more.
The first step in the writing process is often the outline. This is similar to the rough pencil sketch that an artist makes before putting paint to canvas. An outline can serve two purposes:
A step in the approval process. Sometimes you'll need to show your boss or client an outline and have him or her approve it before you proceed to the writing stage. This is common for long copy assignments, such as multipage brochures, Web sites, and direct-mail packages.
A guide to writing. An outline can make the writing process faster and less painful. You don't have to think about what comes next. However, it can be restrictive. What if you develop better ideas as you're writing the piece?
How detailed should your outline be? That depends. If you're the kind of writer who needs a solid framework to work within, then your outline will need to be fairly organized and detailed. On the other extreme, there are many copywriters who can get their fingers dancing on the computer keyboard with just a few notes in front of them. If you don't have to show it to anyone, write just as much of an outline as you need to feel comfortable and confident as you begin to write.
Your outline might require a lot of detail if it needs to be shown to your boss or client. She is going to need to be able to understand how you plan to approach the promotional piece: how it will begin, how the various text elements will be put together, the key messages, the writing style. An outline should have the following elements:
The main headline and other headers
The opening paragraph or first few sentences
Copy points listed as bullets (note that the copy points are a list of what you're going to say in your copy, not how you're going to say it)
Indications of any text boxes, starbursts, sidebars, and other text elements you foresee
Here's an example:
Print Advertisement for Checkup Toothpaste — Copy Outline
Headline: Show Us Your Smile!
Safe for the whole family, even young children.
Completely organic. No harmful chemicals added.
Tastes great. (Most organic toothpastes have a plain or sour taste.)
Gets rid of bad breath.
Makes your mouth feel clean and refreshed.
Brightens your teeth.
Make sure your outline isn't carved in stone. You don't want it to restrict you from using a good idea that might come up later in the writing process. An effective outline should be detailed enough to guide your writing yet flexible enough to accommodate changes, additions, and deletions as required.