When Ryan asked his friend about how he outlines his books, his friend told him it's as simple as answering two types of questions. There are the questions people actually ask and the questions they should be asking. In the case of a nonfiction book, you want your chapter titles to be the questions people ask. Then, the subheadings are made from the questions you believe people should be asking.
The best part about this advice is that it works for article writing, too. As someone who used to be rather allergic to traditional outlining, this simple approach is refreshing. But, while it looks simple on the surface, how easy is it to know what questions to ask, and how can it help you write better articles?
What Questions Do People Actually Ask?
The type of research involved in finding the questions people ask on a regular basis on a given subject used to be rather time consuming. Fortunately, today we have good old Google Autocomplete to give us a treasure trove of what people actually search around a given word or phrase. Bing, Yahoo, and other search engines offer a similar question to help us dredge up further ideas.
The idea is that if an autocomplete feature is suggesting particular search queries, then there’s obviously more than a handful of people asking that same question. These autocomplete features are helpful places to begin keyword research for your articles. Or are they?
As I set to writing on this topic, I ended up asking myself: ”What if the best questions people want to ask aren't even being typed into Google?” Now, that is a question that I wouldn’t see people typing into Google! It's funny how when you start asking yourself questions how you come up with more questions.
What Are the Questions People Aren’t Asking Google?
This is when I figured out what Ryan's friend was really onto when he said you should outline using questions. The thinking behind using topics people search online is that they are questions that will continue to be asked. But, when people have questions, do they always turn to Google or another search engine?
As a writer of web content, it seems like I began to sort of assume that if people don’t search for it online, it’s not relevant to what I have to write. For so long, I’d dredge up keyword phrases based on my autocomplete research. But, after reading that Ryan Stephens book, I started to wonder how learning the secrets of successful nonfiction books could help me write better articles.
The idea dawned on me that I should seriously look into learning more about writing nonfiction books. But did I Google it? Nope. I searched Amazon for free Kindle books on writing. That's right. People still look for answers in books. Who would've thought? Believe it or not, though, there isn't a book readily available for every topic.
Articles are Great, But Books Can Be Better
What I learned through this exercise is this: even if people write a hundred thousand articles on a topic, it doesn't mean there's a good book on it. So, why does it matter if you can't find a book on Amazon for a question you have? To me, it screams opportunity. As a writer, this smells like fresh blood does to a shark.
So, now we've established that people search Amazon sometimes before they even think about Google. That's not a tip you see everyday. But, I do have a friend of mine that suggested using Amazon to see what titles are out there on a given subject you want to learn more about. I’m positive he’s not the only one who does that.
Yes, Amazon has its own autocomplete feature in its search bar. It’s actually going to give you some different results to Google, as people are searching for subjects they are looking for books about. But, beyond Beyond, there are a lot of other places to look for answers to your questions. You can't possibly check them all. So, where do you look for your questions to answer?
So, How Do I Find the Questions People Should Be Asking?
The best way I've been finding questions to ask - the ones people should be asking like Ryan’s friend said - is not by doing keyword research. You certainly should still do some initial keyword research, because you can find some good opportunities to target your content that way. But, when you set yourself to answer a question, you should never limit yourself to just what people type into a search engine. The best way to know what questions people should be asking is to think of the questions you would ask yourself.
If you have a topic or question in mind, write it down. Then, ask yourself the questions you would ask in order to be satisfied that your question has been sufficiently answered. But, how do you know you’re asking the right questions when outlining your article?
I'm loath to say it, but I'll say it anyway because it will help illustrate a point. There's no such thing as a stupid question. Some will rebut that with: until you ask it. Others will follow up with: only if you don't ask it. I'm inclined to agree with the latter rebuttal.
So, What’s the Best Way to Find the Questions People Need to Ask on a Subject?
It turns out we’re not all brilliant masterminds who have billions of unique thoughts everyday. In fact, none of us are. But, I do have good news. The genius is in making the connections between thoughts and ideas. Anyone can do this if you work at it.
So, yeah, if you're thinking something, it's highly likely someone else has thought the same thing. But, if you're acting on it, then you're doing something creative. That's an important distinction that people don’t often realize.
As someone who usually skips outlining an article entirely, why do I suddenly seem keen on taking a step back and really asking some hard questions? Because by asking questions, I find myself asking even more of them. Eventually, I'll recognize which ones seem the most important to answer. Then, I set to work.
What people actually ask is what you'd probably be asking yourself anyway. Yes, seeing what people are asking through a sort of social proof is important, too. But, when you are trying to write an article, you turn the idea faucet on and let it flow for a bit. Then, when you’ve come to a point where you need to turn to finding answers, this is when you know you have a whole bunch of good questions.
So, how do people even look for answers in the first place? It’s not always as simple as...
...or, in place of Google, insert your favorite search engine. Keep in mind people use Amazon and YouTube search to look for answers, too. There’s also Quora and other Q&A websites. Google can be a great discovery tool, but that is all that it is. Finding the answer you’re seeking may in fact be a click away. But it may not be. Even if there are results, will they satisfy you?
In my experience, if it's not a simple question, most of the time you'll find irrelevant results or feel underwhelmed by what you do find. Don't blame Google. No one has answered it well enough yet anywhere the Google spiders can find it. For writers, these queries are fresh blood for article writing!
But, not everyone asks Google their burning questions. Not too many people actually type into Google “should I Google it?” when they’re figuring out how best to find answers. Choosing to use Google is an internal decision. There are so many other search engines out there. While Google is the most-used, by a crazy large margin I may add, not every good question people ask will be easily revealed to you that way.
Should I Look for Answers in a Book?
Turning to books to seek an answer to your question may seem like a quaint solution to some people. If you are even considering turning to books, though, I applaud you - even if it’s an ebook. There’s solid reasoning to this decision making process.
By no means is a Google searcher lazy or lacking in any sort of capacity. But, there are some questions that require some digging for good answers. You can do this through Google, too, of course, but hitting the books means you want more than online articles can give you - no matter how well-written and researched they are.
I hate to break it to you, but what you read online is not always accurate. I also hate to break it to you that what you read in a book isn't always accurate. However, books seem to be much more trusted. Why is that?
Yes, it's true that books tend to be more robustly researched, edited, scrutinized, and peer reviewed. But, online articles can be all of these things, too. Plus, pretty much anyone can self publish both e-books AND print books in our on-demand age. So, there isn't too much difference between what you find online or in books, right?
Here's the key difference: books are longer. Even short ebooks are longer than the vast majority of articles published on the web. Books require more effort to create on the part of the writer and a lot more research to be done right. If you’re turning to books to answer your questions, you're no longer just a searcher, but a researcher. Likely, you’ll have to visit your local library or buy books to seek answers. If anyone goes to that much effort to learn more about a subject, it must be important.
This is where we must bridge the gap to what people should be asking.
What Questions SHOULD We Be Asking in Outlining an Article?
Many questions people are probably only asking internally, but not actually searching. Others have questions that may require more research than many people actually want to do. So, because we writers are wonderful human beings, we go do the hard work so others may benefit from our immense labor.
Or, we're self absorbed jerks who hope to get paid the big bucks for becoming the top expert on subject X.
Either way, same result.
The questions that require the most digging, the ones not answered well by existing literature, or at all through the results of a Google search, are the ones we should be asking in our articles. Those are the ones we should be writing about and answering. Yes, it can be hard work, but the end result is going to be something pretty cool that probably hasn’t been done before.
How Does Asking a Bunch of Questions Help You Outline an Article?
It's quite ironic that when I first began writing this very article that I neglected to even outline it. But, as I went along, I realized that I had something rather profound here. At first, I began to ramble and lose focus. Fortunately, I found a way to right the ship before the article turned into a complete mess. I took a step back and just asked the questions I felt I needed to answer for the article to feel complete.
So, is there a process to outlining an article using these questions?
Turning the more common questions into chapter titles helps you get into the mindset of your audience. If you’re writing an article, this is how people are going to discover it in search. If you’re writing a book, people will find these in your table of contents, if you choose to make that part of a free book preview (which you should). You also show your audience (and potential publishers) that you have your finger on the pulse of your audience for a given topic.
People also like it when you’re asking questions that echo the ones they themselves have been asking. You position yourself as an authority by asking the right questions. It may entice them to follow you or actually buy something you have to offer!
While turning your article or book into an FAQ of sorts isn’t a terrible way to go, you want to get down to creating something more. That’s where the sub-headers come in. They’re quite useful in keeping your audience’s attention and allow skimmers to get some value from your work without reading closely. By turning your subheadings into questions, you force yourself to answer them well.
While asking these questions are really helpful in outlining and focusing yourself on the questions you need to answer, they’re good to keep in the final version, as well. Many people, myself included, have long used subheadings that read as statements or even like commands. While there isn’t anything wrong with this, asking questions instead adds a new dimension to your writing. Not only do people appreciate that you’re asking good questions, but you make your readers ask more questions of themselves.
By asking the right questions people really ask and those that should be asked, your article writing will be a lot more focused. You’ll also find yourself driven towards writing good answers more quickly and more often. These questions can serve as the backbone to any piece of nonfiction writing that you’re doing. Once I started writing this way, I can say I write more quickly and more effectively than ever before.
Plus, I started asking a lot more questions on my own. Is that ever a bad thing?