Never Start With an Outline or a Title

This applies to all writing: letter, memo, whitepaper, special report, blog, business plan or full-length book

For the first 25 years of my career I was a writer—publicity releases, sales letters, memos, business plans, budgets and advertising copy.

Becoming Entrepreneurs
In 1984 my wife Peggy and I gambled $10,000 to create a dry test mailing—an offer to the direct mail community for a non-existent monthly newsletter. The title: WHO’S MAILING WHAT! The test was successful and the roll-out brought in enough money to get up and running.

Within a couple of years, I was the country’s foremost authority on junk mail. I wasn’t a wizard or particularly smart. I happened to be the only guy collecting, analyzing, archiving and writing about the stuff.

Our system was a revolutionary method analyzing for discovering which direct mail was successful. For the first time, marketers could get their hands on the great controls, study the competition and “steal smart.”

The Who’s Mailing What! Archive and measuring system are very much in business today—30 years later.

A Career Change
For the first time in my life, I was a regular writer of articles.

Contrary to what many English teachers, copy chiefs and writing coaches suggest, I never, ever start with an outline.

In fact, any time I tried to make an outline of what I was going to write, I was hit with a serious case of writer’s gastric block—an intellectual and emotional backup from my brain to my innards.

Quite simply, if a writer hasn’t researched a thing it’s impossible to create an outline of what’s going to be said and in what order.

Becoming a Magazine Editor
In 1992, Peggy and I sold our little business to North American Publishing Company. Suddenly I was not only writing articles, but also I was running Target Marketing magazine with editors and writers reporting to me. I had just three pieces of advice for them:

Denny Hatch is the author of six books on marketing and four novels, and is a direct marketing writer, designer and consultant. His latest book is “Write Everything Right!” Visit him at

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  • Eugenia Kaneshige

    I was delighted to read your piece suggesting that one should never start writing with an outline. I thought there was something wrong with me that I’ve never been able to do this, but your article articulates why starting with an outline doesn’t work. I have an analytical mind and like to think that discovery of new information can lead me to change my viewpoint or the structure of my article.

    Your article made me realize, however, that the difference in opinion may hinge around one’s definition of the word ‘start.’ After you’ve done all the research, have a thorough command of your material, and perhaps have already written a major work on the subject, isn’t the ‘outline’ or organization of the material actually forming in your head?

    Once I’ve created 20 pages of material for my 5-7 minute speech, putting an outline on paper seems to help me to focus and commit to paring down my topic to the space (or time, in the case of a speech) I’ve been allotted. I’ve always assumed that writing an outline first could somehow save me from having written the 20 pages, but I believe what you’re saying is that the people who are able to write quickly from an outline are able to do it because they’re creating hastily formed articles that aren’t really worth reading.

  • Rainer Fischer

    My favorite quote: "I was never an expert in all facets of direct marketing. If I were a physician, I would be a GP—general practitioner. I knew the business and the industry. I knew what I did not know. I knew the experts to ask."


  • barry Dennis

    Sorry, Denny. There’s not much you and I disagree on, but I haven’t "grown up" enough not to need some organization plan for my thoughts, whether it’s a Businesss and/or Marketing Plan, or just a rant ‘n rave HuffPost.
    This is not to say that exploring the word universe around a copy theme isn’t necessarily kind of open-ended and not subject to the confinement of a "outline." It is to say that an old guy like me does enjoy freewheeling my thoughts through the imagination universe when I’m working my way through a sales pitch, or making creative astronomical theories make sense on Physics Forum, or PopSci. But the need for a plan in my business-related constructs is important, at least to me, as are "rewrites" and refinements.
    Just sayin ‘.