How to create a content outline in Circus Ponies Notebook

I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape – the loneliness of it, the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn’t show.
Andrew Wyeth

I have written about structure vs. content outlines yesterday (well, before I went to sleep). Your guidelines (e.g., for a thesis or article) give you the information of how to create your structure outline. But how do you create a content outline?

The outline needs to contain all the information you need to have available for writing, so that you can write without having to refer to other information sources (which interrupts the writing process).

1. Generate the rough structure (the Introduction — Main Part — Conclusion thing)

  • This is similar to a structure outline.

2. Put in all information you need, all the data, the graphics (preliminary versions are sufficient), etc.

  • Keep in mind that you need the bones of the text Use keywords not finished/formulated sentences, as the later “stick” together and you cannot easily rearrange the structure even when necessary (e.g., “Thus, …”, “This means …” cannot be moved without also moving the sentence before). This said, if you have a good idea for a sentence, write it down – you can decide later whether you use it (as is or for inspiration) or not.
  • One line/cell of the outliner for one piece of information.
  • Keep a hierarchical structure.
  • Elements of the same order (e.g., “Introduction”, “Results” should have the same indent depth, allowing you to fold in entire sections of the text later when writing).
  • If you put in a lot of data/complex information, write a short summary in its parent cell – this way you can fold in the details and concentrate on the overall picture.
  • The goal is to get a detailed structure and all the necessary information available.

3. Check the content

  • Is all information available?
  • Are all links/references to other parts of the text specified?
    (fold in the sections to compare information that is – usually – far apart and make explicit references, e.g., between discussion and results, or between introduction and conclusion)

4. Reorder the information to produce a red thread

  • Order the outline as a whole first (read it from top to bottom) then read/order each section again before writing it.

5. Write the sections

  • If you have a writers block while writing, you have most likely a problem with the structure, review it first (the advantage of having “only the facts” is that you have invested relatively little and can quickly change the structure).

It’s very easy to make a text out of these facts if all information is collected in one central document (the outline). When my outline for my PhD thesis was finished (took quite some time) I was able to write the dissertation thesis in 30 days.


  1. Hoi Shweta,

    that’s the question … I get it a lot, but unfortunately (or very fortunately for me), I don’t use Windows, so I don’t really know. It seems difficult to find a good outliner for windows. However, there is a list of Outliners on Wikipedia (EN). You can sort the table according to operating system. But I cannot recommend a specific software, because I have never tried them. Hmm, if you find a good outliner, please drop me a line, I’ll do a posting about it.

    All the best


  2. Hello,

    In this and related posts, you have very possibly resolved (but certainly articulated) a years-old problem I had suspected might be related to some kind of undiagnosed learning disability.

    What it appears I have been doing is straddling obsessive research (as procrastination; as an attempt to fill holes left by a lack of structure) and “writing sentences”. I had no real grip on how to impose the more general outlining strategy I had been taught onto my chaotic thoughts, notes, and multiple (parallel) drafts — I was trying to discover my logic as I wrote/wrestled/panicked.

    But – I found your blog, and consider myself enlightened. I am eager to see how in-depth content outlining will improve my approach.

    Thank you!

  3. Thank you, I hope it helps. And what else is technology for but augment us where we need support … 🙂

11 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Workshop: Scientific Work — Possible Academic Literature Workflow | ORGANIZING CREATIVITY
  2. With Plagiarism it does not matter whether you really are creative | ORGANIZING CREATIVITY
  3. Circus Ponies Notebook for iPad | ORGANIZING CREATIVITY
  4. Under the Hood … | ORGANIZING CREATIVITY
  5. Workshop: Scientific Work — Writing #2 Knowing What To Write | ORGANIZING CREATIVITY
  6. Dealing With the Plagiarism Plague Among Students | ORGANIZING CREATIVITY
  7. Circus Ponies Notebook Version 4 available | ORGANIZING CREATIVITY
  8. Workshop: Scientific Work — Reading & Using Literature | ORGANIZING CREATIVITY
  10. Literature Recommendations for Scientific Writing | ORGANIZING CREATIVITY
  11. Reading Digitally: GoodReader + Skim vs Sente | ORGANIZING CREATIVITY

Comments are closed.