I haven't encountered many epic fails in the documentation world, but once in a while I'm asked to fix a train wreck. At the root of one recent near-catastrophe, the principal writer failed to use an outline. The result? Two years of critical research and analysis was not presentable to the customer. Ouch.

Josh Bernoff, a business writer who has researched more than 570 companies, reported that bad writing is costing businesses $396 billion a year. “America is spending 6 percent of total wages on time wasted attempting to get meaning out of poorly written material. Every company, every manager, every professional pays this tax,” he wrote.

Outlines are a simple and effective tool to guide the writing process. In my writing workshop, I emphasize outlines as perhaps the most important takeaway. Whether you're writing a report or drafting your next sales pitch, always take a few minutes upfront to identify your purpose, think about your audience and define your key messages.

In my own writing, I like to do this the old-fashioned way, with pen and paper—before I even touch my computer. Spend some time with your topic. Why are you communicating? Think about the outcomes you want to achieve and map out a plan to get there.

With your outline as your guide, you are better positioned to provide your readers with the clarity they need—for their bottom line—and yours.