Cards, outlines, research, and how to pull it all together
If you need a quick way to clear a room of content creators or marketers, shift the conversation toward a discussion of the project’s taxonomy. If it doesn’t get people running for the exit, it will have them shifting in their seats or checking their newsfeed.
What’s a Taxonomy and Do I Really Need One?
There’s a widely held view that taxonomy is only for web development and that it has something to do with the coding or some other mysterious backend function.
I want to show you how to use a taxonomy across your content systems and clear up the misconception that taxonomy is only used when creating a website.
A taxonomy has a broader and more critical application. Content creators, such as YouTubers and bloggers, can use a taxonomy to develop and manage their content.
Before I show you how I use a taxonomy, let me recap my last blog.
A content system’s foundation consists of three components: an editorial mission statement (EMS); audience personas and; a taxonomy.
The editorial mission statement (EMS) describes your content, who it’s for, and its purpose or outcome.
A persona is a composite, fictionalized representation of an individual from your target audience.
A taxonomy is your catalog system. There are three levels in a taxonomy — the categories, the subcategories, and the keywords or metadata. The categories are the big buckets, the subcategories are smaller buckets within the big buckets, and the keywords or metadata are the descriptors that provide detail.
How I Use a Taxonomy
I’ve been a content creator for more than 20 years. I’ve never looked at what I do as a career. I see it as a journey, a never-ending quest for knowledge. It’s a combination of who I am and the nature of my profession. I’m a naturally curious person and a life-long learner.
Because of this, I consume lots of content and I document just about everything that interests me. So when it comes to collecting ideas, theories, research, and data, I’m a hoarder. If I didn’t use a taxonomy to catalog these things, it would be nearly impossible to harness the power of this collection.
I use a taxonomy to organize ideas and produce content. I’ll show you how taxonomy works with my website’s content management system (CMS) and search engine optimization (SEO).
For my research on content systems, I have this enormous collection of data and insights, ideas and analysis, and other things, such as inspirational quotes. All of it is super-organized, but it didn’t start that way.
My Content Systems Taxonomy
I drafted my Content Systems Taxonomy and tested it to confirm its accuracy and viability before I started using it. I explained this step in a post you can read here. Once I completed this step, I was ready to use my taxonomy across all of my work.
Let’s focus on the categories because, as you’ll see, they carry more weight than the subcategories and will show a taxonomy in action.
The categories for my Content Systems Taxonomy look like this:
Within my WordPress Content Management System (CMS), the categories look like this:
These are my big buckets: Research, Analysis, Strategy, Budget, Lean Startup, Storified Marketing, Psychology, and Communication. These provide a framework for how I think about content and give me a consistent method for cataloging. Anything I capture — ideas, theories, stories, etc. — will always fall under one or more of these categories.
My Materials and Supplies, Including Software
My hybrid method for capturing and organizing content is an analog/digital combo. I start in the analog world of legal pads and index cards and then move into the digital space of Word, Excel, and programs like Scrivener and Final Draft. Scrivener is an excellent low-cost program designed to help you develop, write, and manage long-form writing projects, such as books or a blog series. Final Draft is a screenwriting program that I’ve been using since college.
You’ll also need a box to hold your index cards. Start with a small box, and as your collection grows, you can size up to a larger, more durable solution. Ryan Holiday has a great blog on his Notecard System that he uses to capture ideas.
What works for me is using a different color card to represent each of my categories. For example, Research is red, Analysis is orange, Strategy is yellow, Budget is green, Lean Startup is red, Storified Marketing is orange, Psychology is yellow, and Communication is green.
A Taxonomy Enables Two Functions Within a Content System. The First Is Content Organization and Management, and the Second Is Content Production and Distribution
Usage #1: Content organization and management
I don’t just consume content. I engage with it. I actively read, watch, and listen. That means I take long-form notes and then use index cards for essential points. If I didn’t do this, there would be no way for me to remember, apply, and share what I learn.
Step 1: Note-taking using the Outline Method
When I complete a chapter or section of a book or watch or listen to an interview, I typically use the Outline Method for note-taking. Here’s the level of detail I capture for a book and a lecture.
Step 2: Transfer key concepts to index cards
Once I finish outlining, I use the index cards for key points. I write one concept — a takeaway, big idea, quote, etc. — taken directly from my outline on an index card. On each card, I write down just enough information so that it’s understandable independent of any other information. In other words, if all I had was just the card, it still made sense to me.
At a minimum, you should have the note and its source. I also like to include the author and, if possible, a page number. There’s lots of flexibility here. Some people cram the front and back of their cards with information and others just have a simple word or two that triggers their memory.
For some of your cards, you may want to tape printed graphs or photos. The way you capture information on your cards is limitless and personal, and not having any restrictions is what makes its use so compelling.
Some people skip the note-taking and just using index cards, especially if they highlight their text, dogear pages, or use post-its within their books. For me, the act of writing an outline is both a physical and mental activity that gives me a deeper understanding of what I’m learning.
It’s a commitment device that requires me to slow down and process new information as I write. And there’s research to support the premise that people who write out their notes learn more. Do I retain everything I read? No way. Not even close. Sometimes I find myself two or three chapters into an eBook before I realize I’ve already read it. But I’m sure I’d remember much less if I didn’t take handwritten notes.
If you’re having trouble retaining what you’re reading, try the combo of outlining and index cards to see if it helps.
Step 3: File each card
So, I have my detailed outline and corresponding key points index cards. Now it comes time to file the cards for future use. I take my colored index cards — each with the category title on it — and file the index cards within the appropriate sections.
For example, this card, “audience insights are intellectual capital,” is filed under Strategy. If the same card can fit under two categories, as it does in this case, I copy the information and file it within both categories.
That’s all there is to it. Consume content, write it down, and file it under the appropriate category. If you consistently use this system of documentation, your collection will grow quickly. I use different taxonomies for different purposes. For example, I have one for content systems and another for screenwriting. Sure, there is some overlap of ideas, but for the most part, the two are discrete taxonomies.
What about back-up? I scan everything so I have digital copies for two reasons. First, I need a back-up because my handwritten notes and index cards represent decades of research. Second, it provides me with flexibility. For example, when I don’t have access to my collection of index cards, such as when I travel, I can still review them on my laptop. In the next section, you’ll see that I take it a step further and create digital index cards within Scrivener.
Usage # 2: Content production and distribution
This process of consuming content, taking notes, and organizing key points within my index card system never stops. I’m very consistent and not a day goes by without me taking notes and adding to my collection.
This encourages the creative process. From this effort comes the spark of an idea for a piece of content, and it usually happens in the most unlikely places or random moments, like when I’m cycling. Next is an explanation of how I use my taxonomy to develop a piece of content.
Step 1: Create a question
Once I have a viable idea, the first thing I do is develop a question my piece of content will answer. Notice how I said a viable idea? It’s only viable if the idea will produce content that aligns with my editorial mission and provides value to one of my personas.
For example, while studying the efficacy of marketing campaigns I collected a lot of data on different initiatives. One day, a headline came flashing across my newsfeed that Wayfair, the online furniture company, was suffering from declining sales and was laying off more than 500 people in its Boston offices. I had studied Wayfair in my collection of data so I knew I had accumulated enough information that I could write something of value to marketers.
I reviewed my Wayfair notes and index cards and I quickly developed the question: How could content save Wayfair?
Step 2: Draft an outline that answers the question
My next step is to answer the question by providing enough context and practical takeaways so others find it useful. I don’t create detailed outlines. I find that too constraining. I draft outlines as if I were having a conversation with someone. Outlining is always a challenging step for me because I quickly shift things into high gear and tend to provide too much information. Most of the extraneous information gets cut later in the process.
Step 3: Identify categories within your outline
Once I have a rough outline of my piece, I circle or highlight my categories that appear throughout it. Each piece usually incorporates two to three of the categories from my taxonomy. There’s no secret formula here. If your outline only has one of your categories, that’s totally fine, especially if it’s pillar content focusing on one idea.
Step 4: Review index cards
I now have an outline with the categories from my taxonomy highlighted. I take my box of cards and review all the index cards within each category appearing in my outline.
At this step, I use my index cards to expand my outline by adding one of three things: exposition, data, or a story. The cards help me balance my article and fill some of the content gaps. They’re also useful for adding data and citing references.
Another benefit of using this system is that some of the information captured on the index cards months or years ago may cause you to reexamine your outline. Perhaps there’s a disconnect or a new connection? Or you now have a different perspective on something you learned long ago that impacts your work today. Remember, if you don’t use a system like this, you’re relying on memory. For me, that’s too risky.
Step 5: Research the article
As I mentioned earlier, my index cards are tied to my outlines, and my outlines lead to the source material. This linkage makes the research process a little easier. I can return to the original source, typically a book, and then trace its source by reviewing footnotes or endnotes.
This may not seem like a big deal, but for me, it’s a huge timesaver. And my taxonomy and this system make it possible.
Step 6: Transfer outline to Scrivener
Before I write the article, I transfer my outline into Scrivener because it helps me keep my writing on-track and keeps me focused. Also, within the application, I can toggle my outline to appear as index cards. This gives me the ability to move whole sections easily just by reordering the cards.
If you don’t have Scrivener, of course, Word or Google Docs will work. You just won’t have the index card functionality.
Step 7: Write the article
Now with all the pre-work done, I follow my outline and write the article. I also refer to my index cards and primary sources, which are mostly books and articles, as I write.
Once I have a draft that’s in decent shape, I share it with some of my collaborators for their review and comments.
There’s typically some back and forth until I get to a place at which I consider the article ready for publication.
Step 8: Publishing prep
There are a couple of things I like to do before publishing the article. As I explained in my previous article, my taxonomy contains keywords, metadata, and tags that are high value and have low competition. I use that list to determine which of those terms and phrases to incorporate within my article.
Of course, I don’t just shoehorn in these things for SEO purposes. They typically are a substitute for another word or phrase. There have been times when I’ve reworked a sentence or two for the inclusion of high-value keywords, but these can’t be gratuitous and must fit the article I’m writing.
At this point, I also use my taxonomy to make sure the title and its description were written with SEO in mind. Remember, when you create your taxonomy, research and include keywords and metadata that will resonate with your audience and improve findability.
Step 9: Uploading to the CMS
There’s no real magic here. It’s typically a copy and paste from Scrivener or Word into the CMS. However, I include this step for two reasons. First, it’s a necessary step. Second, the tags within your taxonomy also live in your CMS. Before you hit publish, you select the tags associated with your article.
Step 10: Social media promotion
This step can be its own post, but I’ll keep it simple. Whether you create an organic or paid post, you will use your taxonomy when creating your social media messages. For example, you’ll use some of your keywords as hashtags within a tweet.
So, there it is. From organizing your research, to producing content, to sharing and promoting it, your taxonomy is an invaluable tool to help you achieve your content and business goals.