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Manual Outlining vs. Automated Outlining:

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Manual vs. Automated Outlining: Which is Better for Writers?

Outlining is an important part of the writing process. It helps writers organize their thoughts and create a structure for their work before they start writing. 

Writers can create outlines manually or use automated outlining tools. Both approaches have advantages and disadvantages. Here is an in-depth comparison of manual and automated outlining to help writers decide which method may work best for them.

What is Outlining?

An outline is a tool used to organize ideas and structure content before writing a first draft. Outlines break writing projects down into logical, manageable sections.

Here are some key benefits of creating an outline:

  • Provides an overview of the entire project
  • Identifies the main points and how they fit together
  • Shows the logical flow and progression of ideas
  • Highlights gaps in content or weak areas
  • Saves time by eliminating aimless writing
  • Creates a framework to follow during drafting

Outlines can be simple or complex. They may contain just basic headings or include detailed notes under each main section. The depth of outlining depends on the writer’s preferences and needs.

Outlines are an important part of the writing process, no matter which outlining approach a writer chooses.

Manual Outlining

With manual outlining, the writer creates the outline by hand without relying on tools or software.

Here are some manual outlining techniques:


The writer jots down all ideas related to the project. This helps identify the key points to include.

Mind Mapping

The writer visually maps out the project’s structure, using bubbles and branches to connect ideas.

Index Cards

The writer writes key points, quotes, or details on individual index cards, then arranges the cards to form the outline structure.

Lists and Headings

The writer composes a simple outline using bullet points, numbered lists, headings, and subheadings.

Paragraph Outline

The writer drafts topic sentences or short paragraphs for each section of the outline.

Flow Charts

The writer diagrams the logical flow of ideas using boxes and arrows.

Free-form Writing

The writer free writes about the project then pulls out the main points to form the outline.

These manual techniques allow the writer to slowly craft the outline structure through thinking, planning, and experimenting with ideas.

Benefits of Manual Outlining


Manual outlining is highly adaptable. Writers can use various techniques, work in short bursts, or slowly refine the outline over time. There is more freedom compared to following automated software.


Manual outlines are completely customizable to the writer’s project and personal preferences. There are no outline templates, rules, or restrictions.

Offline Access

Manual outlines can be created anywhere, without internet access or devices. All it takes is some paper and a pencil.


Outlines made manually are lightweight and portable compared to outlines trapped inside specific apps or word processing programs.


Studies show we remember things better when writing manually. Creating the outline by hand can help writers internalize the content structure and details.

No Learning Curve

Handwritten outlines don’t require learning new software. The writer simply uses techniques they are already familiar with.

Low Tech

Minimal supplies are needed. For basic outlines, all you need is a pen and paper. Index cards and sticky notes can also help.

Drawbacks of Manual Outlining

Time Investment

Manual outlines take time to create and organize. It may involve several rounds of brainstorming, organizing, and restructuring to get the sequence right.

Messy Process

Notes, cards, and lists created during manual outlining can become disorganized or lost. Keeping all outline components together requires vigilance.

Difficult Revisions

It can be tedious to modify manual outlines. Adding, moving, or removing sections involves rewriting pieces or reconfiguring note cards.

Limited Portability

Although lightweight, handwritten outlines are not always easy to carry around or access from different locations. You have to keep track of physical outline components.

Not Shareable

To share ideas with others, manual outlines must be recopied or scanned digitally. Handwritten outlines cannot be easily sent or collaborated on.

No Backup

Without scanning or recopying, handwritten outlines can be permanently lost or damaged. There is no built-in backup like with digital outlines.


Most manual outlines are designed to be working documents. They may not be sturdy or organized enough to serve as an outline for the entire writing process.

Automated Outlining

Automated outlining relies on software tools and AI technology to help generate outlines. The writer inputs ideas and content, and the program outputs an organized outline.

Here are some popular automated outlining tools:

These tools provide templates, organization, analysis, and other automation features to help streamline outline creation. The level of automation varies across platforms.

Benefits of Automated Outlining


Automated tools can save time and effort on outlining. The software does much of the formatting, structuring, and reorganizing automatically.


Apps keep all outline components together in an ordered structure. This reduces confusion or lost notes.


Many programs analyze content to identify logical gaps, problem areas, or redundancy. This helps improve the outline.

Flexible Revisions

Outlines made in apps can be quickly rearranged, expanded, or collapsed. It’s easy to experiment with the structure.


Digital outlines can be easily shared for feedback and collaboration using links, exports, or file sharing.


Automated tools save outlines in the cloud or designated folders. So outlines are protected from loss and accessible from anywhere.


Many programs offer pre-made outline templates for different types of writing projects, making it easier to get started.


Some software enables outlining through visual methods like flowcharts, diagrams, and mind maps.


Digital outlines can be accessed across devices with the right software or apps. This makes them convenient for writing anytime, anywhere.

Drawbacks of Automated Outlining

Rigid Templates

Preset outline templates may not fit all writing needs. For some projects, the fixed format can feel too rigid.

Learning Curve

It takes time to learn the features and quirks of new outlining programs. There is a learning curve.

Technology Dependence

You must have compatible devices and internet access to use most digital outlining tools. Technical issues can disrupt workflow.

Subscription Fees

Many robust outlining apps require monthly or yearly fees for full access to features. The costs add up.

Distraction Potential

The bells and whistles of fancy software can be distracting. It may encourage fiddling with features vs. simply outlining.

Less Customization

Automated tools offer less overall flexibility and control compared to handcrafted outlines. There are limits within the software parameters.

Overwhelming Analysis

Extensive feedback from outlining apps can sometimes overwhelm writers with too many structural change suggestions. Information overload!

Security Risks

Storing outlines in the cloud comes with some privacy and security risks depending on the provider.

Key Considerations for Writers

When deciding between manual or automated outlining methods, here are some key considerations:

Type of Project

Is it a long, complex project like a book? Or a simpler short piece? Complex manuscripts benefit more from robust outlining software. Shorter pieces may only need simple handwritten outlines.

Personal Preferences

Do you prefer hands-on, DIY approaches or tech-based systems? There are benefits to each. Outline manually if you like to handcraft strategy. Use apps if you want efficiency and organizational aid.

Deadlines & Timelines

Manual outlines require more investment on the front end. Digital tools can help accelerate the process. Factor in your project deadlines.


Expensive outlining software costs money. Manual approaches are free or very low-cost. So budget is a practical consideration.

Work Habits

How do you best brainstorm and organize ideas? If you love scrawling notes and moving index cards, manual outlining will align better with your work habits.

Accessibility Needs

Those with disabilities like low vision may benefit more from digital outlining tools that integrate accessibility features like text-to-speech.

There are excellent reasons for writers to choose either manual or automated outlining methods. The “best” option depends on the project needs and individual preferences of the writer. Often a combined approach utilizing both digital tools and manual elements offers the greatest creative flexibility.

Manual vs. Automated Outlining: Conclusion

Outlining is a powerful tool to help writers organize and structure their work. Both manual and automated outlining approaches have pros and cons.

Manual outlining provides greater creative control, flexibility, and hands-on customization without relying on technology. However, it takes more time upfront and revisions can be tedious.

Automated software streamlines the outlining process with efficiency, organization, analysis, and shareability. But it lacks the human touch of handcrafted outlines.

Here are some final tips on choosing your approach:

  • Do what feels natural to your workflow – go manual or digital based on how you best brainstorm and organize.
  • Try a combination – use digital tools to build on your hand-written outlines for the best of both worlds.
  • Experiment to find what suits the project – simpler pieces may need only basic outlines while complex works require robust apps.
  • Reflect on what’s most productive for you – assess which approach helps you create outlines that make drafting easier.

Outlining is personal. While there are clear benefits to both manual and automated methods, ultimately writers should choose the approach that best sparks their creativity and productivity.

Frequently Asked Questions About Outlining

Why create an outline?

Outlines help organize ideas, structure writing, and create a strategic plan before drafting. This saves time, provides direction, and improves the quality of the final work.

When should I create an outline?

Outlining early in the writing process allows time to think through the structure and flow of ideas. However, outlines can be created or refined at any stage as ideas develop.

What does a good outline include?

An effective outline covers your thesis or main objective, major points, supporting points, topic sentences, a logical flow, connections between ideas, and a conclusion.

How detailed should an outline be?

The depth of outlining detail depends on personal preference and needs. Highly detailed “sentence outlines” help some writers. Others prefer simpler topic-based outlines.

Can outlines be too detailed?

Yes, outlines that are overly long or complex can make actually writing more difficult. Find the right level of detail for your project and process.

How do I organize outline sections?

Use headings, numbered lists, and hierarchy to organize outline components. Group related ideas together, ordered in a way that builds logically.

Should I follow my outline exactly?

An outline is a guide, not a prison! It’s fine to deviate from your outline as ideas emerge and evolve during drafting. Stay flexible.

When is it best to outline by hand?

Handwritten outlines are great for brainstorming, shorter pieces, portability needs, or if you learn better by writing manually.

When are digital outlining tools most helpful?

For complex manuscripts like books, revising outlines, collaborating, organizing research, or accelerating your workflow, digital tools can be extremely useful.

In Summary

Outlining is a critical step. Both manual and digital approaches have merits depending on the project and writer. Experiment to find your best outlining process. The method that sparks productivity and brings organization to your ideas will be the “right” system for you as a writer. Keep an open mind, be flexible, and utilize the tools that make outlining enjoyable.

Key Differences Between Manual and Automated Outlining

To recap, here are some of the major differences between creating an outline manually versus using automated software tools:


  • Manual: Highly customizable based on personal preferences and habits.
  • Automated: Limited customization based on the software parameters and available templates.


  • Manual: Can experiment freely with different organizational structures.
  • Automated: Somewhat restrictive structure based on the template or tool used.


  • Manual: Requires physical tools and papers. Not always accessible.
  • Automated: Accessible across devices with internet connection.

Learning Curve

  • Manual: Little to no learning curve. Use natural writing skills.
  • Automated: Steeper learning curve to understand the software.

Analytical Assistance

  • Manual: Outline analysis relies solely on writer’s judgment.
  • Automated: Programs algorithmically analyze and provide feedback on the outline.


  • Manual: Revisions require rewriting sections by hand.
  • Automated: Outlines can be quickly reorganized by dragging and dropping sections.

Visual Options

  • Manual: Can hand draw visual outlines like flow charts.
  • Automated: Digital tools provide visualization templates.

Sharing & Collaborating

  • Manual: Must be recopied or scanned to share outlines.
  • Automated: Can easily export, share links, and collaborate digitally.


  • Manual: Low security risks. Physical outline can be stored securely.
  • Automated: Potential privacy and hacking risks storing outlines in the cloud.

Backup & Recovery

  • Manual: No backup available. Original could be lost or damaged.
  • Automated: Can recover outlines from cloud backups or file histories.

Tips for Outlining Success

Here are some tips to create effective outlines and make the most of the outlining process:

Brainstorm extensively first

Don’t start structuring right away. Brainstorm ideas, details, quotes, and research exhaustively to build raw material for your outline.

Be thorough but selective

Not every minor point needs to be outlined. Identify the key headings and supporting details only. Avoid over-outlining.

Use numbering and hierarchy

Show the relationships between sections using headings, numbered lists, and indentation.

Write topic sentences

Draft a topic sentence for each major section to encapsulate the core idea and help you stay on track.

Explain connections

Use transitions, arrows, or notes to indicate connections between different outline components.

Start general then get specific

Build the broad outline structure first. Then drill down to paragraph-level detail incrementally.

Make it visual

Use diagrams, mind maps, index cards, or color coding to outline visually if helpful. Engage different parts of your brain.

Save backup copies

Always keep an extra copy of your outline for safety whether digital or handwritten. Losing an outline mid-project is devastating!

Keep outlines nearby

Print or keep outlines accessible when drafting for quick reference to stay on track. Don’t let it disappear from view.

Revise iteratively

Refine your outline gradually as ideas change. Be open to modifying it. Don’t get stuck on “perfecting” it too early.

Use productivity tricks

Set timers for outlining sessions. Brainstorm outline elements onto sticky notes for easy rearranging. Find what works for you!

Common Outlining Mistakes to Avoid

While outlining is extremely helpful to writers, it’s easy to go astray. Watch out for these common outlining pitfalls:

Creating rigid, inflexible outlines

Don’t box yourself in! Allow some room for improvisation as ideas emerge during drafting.

Outlining prematurely

Don’t start structuring before collecting enough raw ideas. Outline too soon and you may leave great material out.

Skipping context and explanations

Brief headings alone are not enough. Add notes to explain how sections connect and transition.

Focusing on trivial details

Don’t meticulously outline granular details upfront. Start broad, then delve into nitty-gritty points later.

Using convoluted numbering systems

Overly complex numbering like 1.2a.iv quickly becomes unmanageable. Keep it simple!

Forgetting to update the outline

Don’t create once and neglect later. Revise the outline continually as the work evolves.

Losing sight of the big picture

While outlining sections, regularly zoom out to ensure the overall flow still makes sense.

Becoming a slave to the outline

Don’t let rigidity rule. Allow creative detours as needed away from the original outline.

Outsourcing all thinking to tools

Automated tools should assist, not replace critical thinking about structure. Stay actively engaged.

Ignoring problems or gaps

Be honest with yourself if pieces are missing or sections make no sense. Fix it now, don’t delay!

Alternatives to Traditional Outlining

Beyond manual or digital outlines, some other creative options include:

“Scraps” Outlining

Collect random ideas on scraps of paper, sticky notes, or notecards. Play with arranging them rather than traditional outlines.

“Reverse” Outlining

Write a rough draft first, without an outline. Then extract the key points into a reverse outline after.

“Talk It Out” Outlining

Discuss your project verbally, record yourself, then outline based on the conversation flow and main points.

“Steps” Outlining

For task-based projects, outline the necessary real-world steps rather than a traditional outline format.

“Storyboard” Outlining

Visually sketch or storyboard key scenes or progression. Then describe with words.

“Mind Movie” Outlining

Imagine your finished project as a mental movie. Outline based on the scenes in your mind.

“Role Play” Outlining

Pretend you are teaching your project to someone else. Outline your explanation.

Don’t feel restricted to text-based outlines if that doesn’t suit you. Try alternative outlining strategies to discover your best mental creative process.

Sample Outline Structure

Here is an example basic outline structure with headings and topic sentences:


  • Overview explaining the purpose of comparing manual and automated outlining approaches.

Manual Outlining Methods

  • List of techniques like brainstorming, mind mapping, index cards, etc.

Benefits of Manual Outlining

  • Flexibility, customization, portability, and retention benefits explained.

Drawbacks of Manual Outlining

  • Time investment, revision difficulty, disorganization problems discussed.

Automated Outlining Tools

  • Examples of popular software options like, Scrivener, etc.

Benefits of Automated Outlining

  • Efficiency, organization, analysis, and shareability benefits explained.

Drawbacks of Automated Outlining

  • Rigid templates, subscription costs, distractions explained.

Key Considerations for Writers

  • Factors like project type, preferences, deadlines, budget addressed.

Manual vs. Automated: Key Differences

  • Side-by-side comparison on customization, flexibility, learning curves, etc.

Tips for Outlining Success

  • Practical suggestions like starting broad, revising iteratively, using timers, etc.

Common Outlining Mistakes

  • Issues like inflexibility, skipping context, convoluted numbering, etc.

Alternatives to Traditional Outlining

  • Overview of creative options like storyboarding, role playing, etc.

Conclusion & Summary

  • Final recommendations for choosing approach based on project and preferences.

This covers all the major pieces of an effective outline structure for this topic and content. The writer would then flesh out more supporting details under each heading while drafting.