Writing Better Articles: Outlining with the Questions People Ask and The Questions They Should Be Asking
Some of the best advice I've ever read on outlining came from the book “How to Write a Book for Beginners" by Ryan Stephens. This advice had to do outlining a nonfiction book, but it’s applicable to any kind of nonfiction writing.
Ryan asked his friend about how he outlines his books. He told him it's as simple as this: answer 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 find 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, I find this simple approach refreshing. But while it looks simple on the surface, how easy is it to know what questions to ask?
What Questions Do People Actually Ask?
Fortunately, good old Google Autocomplete can give us a treasure trove of what people actually search around a given word or phrase. This is a helpful place to begin your research. Or is it?
The funny thing that came to my head as I set to writing on this topic is this: what if the best questions people want to ask aren't even being typed into Google? This is a good thought that I don't think I've ever thought before. It's funny how when you start asking yourself questions how you come up with more questions.
This is how I knew that Ryan's friend was really onto something when he said you should outline using questions. For so long I've often used dry subheaders and even really dry titles just to get the keywords in there. Before reading that Ryan Stephens book I didn't even really consider writing nonfiction books. But the idea dawned on me that I should seriously look into it.
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. 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 there are a lot of places to look for answers to your questions. You can't possibly check them all.
So, How Do I Find the Right Questions to Ask?
The best way I've been finding questions to ask is not doing keyword research. I certainly 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. The best way to know what questions to ask is to ask yourself what questions you would ask.
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 I'm asking the right questions when outlining my article or book?
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 Actually Ask?
It turns out we are not all brilliant masterminds who have billions of unique thoughts everyday. 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 important.
As someone who usually skips outlining entirely, why do I suddenly seem keen on taking a step back and really ask 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 actually ask is important through some research, too. But when you are trying to write something, 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 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?
Should I Google It?
Or, in place of Google, insert your favorite search engine. Keep in mind people use Amazon and YouTube to look for answers, too. Google can be a great tool, but that is all that it is. Finding the answer your seeking may in fact be a click away. But it may not be. And 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. Don't blame Google. No one has answered it well enough yet anywhere the Google spiders can find. For writers, this is fresh blood!
But not everyone asks Google their burning questions. And 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 and while Google is the most-used, 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 quaint to some people. Actually, if you are even considering this, though,I applaud you. There’s solid reasoning to this decision making process.
By no means is the Google searcher is being lazy or anything. But there are some questions that would seem to require some digging. 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 good they are..
And, I hate to break it to you. 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, and scrutinized. But, online articles can be too. And since pretty much anyone can self publish not only e-books, but print books too, there isn't too much difference between what you find online or in books, right?
Actually, here's the key difference. Books are longer. Even short ebooks are longer than most articles published on the web. Books require more effort on the part of the writer, and a lot more research. If you’re turning to books to answer your questions, you're no longer just a searcher, but a researcher. Likely, you’ll have visit your local library or buy books to seek answers. If anyone goes to that much effort, it must be important..
This is where we must bridge the gap to what people should be asking.
What Questions SHOULD We Be Asking?
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.
Or we're self absorbed jerks who want to get paid the big bucks for becoming the top expert on subject X. Either way, same result.
The questions that require digging, the ones not answered well or at all through the results of a Google search, are the ones we should be asking. 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 Listing 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 pretty profound here. At first, I began to ramble and lose focus. Fortunately, I righted the ship. I started taking a step back and just asking the questions before I just took off being the rambling fool I often am.
Or am I?
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 certain 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.
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 subheaders 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 really answer them.
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 had many subheadings that read as statements or more 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 that people really ask and those that we should be asking, your writing will be a lot more focused and you’ll find yourself driven towards writing good answers more quickly and more often. The questions people ask and the questions they should be asking 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. Is that ever a bad thing?
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