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How to Outline a Nonfiction Book

Do you dread taking time to write an outline for a book?

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Would you rather just put pen to paper and start to write and see where it takes you?

Does it feel like a waste of time to begin with the “extra” work of writing an outline?

It’s possible to write a nonfiction book by the seat of your pants, but having an outline helps you know where you are going with your message so you are able to write in a straight line instead of taking time-wasting detours.

Without an outline, you will likely spend extra time cutting, revising, and rewriting your original work. Outlining your book gives you a solid plan that will keep you on track so you can write your book efficiently and with confidence.

There are big benefits to outlining your book before you start writing it. Here are four benefits that I’ll go into more detail on later:

1) You can write your book quickly once your outline is complete.
2) You have a high word count, which will keep your production high.
3) It prevents writer’s block.
4) It does not take a long time to create a good outline.

Also, with an outline you can avoid the “cursor of death” and writer’s block because you’ve mapped out what you will write about. This will help plow through your first draft with a clear path of what content should go in each section.

Here is how to outline a book in a way that gives you the structure you need to create the map to your manuscript.

With the above benefits in mind, there are four steps to creating a really effective outline for your book that you will thank yourself for later.

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Starting your book out with the knowledge that you already know what direction you are heading in will help you be more confident as a writer and feel like you know your goals and are ready to achieve them.

Finding Your Hook for Your Book.

The hook is simply a quick elevator pitch that best describes your book. This provides an overall direction for where you to take the narrative and how you will solve the readers problem.

The sooner you can identify your hook, the more time you will give your subconscious time to surface more quality content that you can add to the book.

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Sitting on your idea for a a week or two can give you more clarity before you begin outlining. You may also want to get input from other people and do additional research on the topic to see if you want to change your hook in any way before you get started with your outline.

The Big Brain Dump.

The next step is to sit down and write everything you can think of about your topic. Steve Scott’s technique is to start writing with a pen and paper. Some writers use mind mapping software to get all their ideas out.

Next step is to write fast. Your goal here is to get everything in your head out and written down. During this brain dump, don’t worry about grammar, punctuation, or how ordered everything looks. In fact, if you want to draw images or use arrows go ahead and do it.

Do anything you have to do to record your thoughts and ideas. Don’t stop to analyze your thoughts or think too hard about the next thing that will come to mind. Instead, you want to try to unlock your subconscious thoughts in a free flowing way that you can clean up later on in the writing process.

It is important to spend at least 1-2 hours on the brain dump process. Don’t rush through it to get it over with. You do want to write quickly, but don’t be in a rush to complete it.

You may feel like you are running out of ideas about your topic, but if you pause for a few minutes, something else important will likely come to mind.

The Index Card Method

Steve Scott uses index cards to begin organizing his key ideas from the brain dump session.

When writing your index cards, you don’t need to go into great detail. Just write enough on each card to remind yourself of the point you want to make or refer yourself back to a resource that you will need to reference.

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The index card method will allow you to easily move your ideas around and restructure your book. Steve uses this tactile approach to help create a solid backbone for his outline that will be turned into the first draft.

Once you write your idea on the index card, you simply cross it off your brain dump page.

Begin the process by writing down 10-12 chapter names on individual index cards (use the blank side, not lined). After that you’ll do the same process for sub-chapters.

When you finish this process you’ll end up with 3-5 sub-chapter index cards for each chapter (total index cards of 40-60). 

You’ll continue to add web links, stories, research, quotes and resources to these cards. These index cards will serve as prompts so you’ll always know what you need to write next in completing your book.

Tweak The Index Card Content

Last, go through your index cards and get rid of anything that either is not relevant or does not help solve a problem for the reader.

Hopefully, your brain dump produced more ideas than you needed, and some of them are probably not beneficial to your message.

This is the time to delete those and toss those index cards. This will help to better structure your framework and give you a good order for your book that makes sense.

One additional step you can take is to type all of the information from your index cards into a document to create an actual digital outline. The process of typing it out will further clean up your thoughts and allow you to see them all together. It will give you another angle to view the structure of your book before you begin writing it.

The Traditional Outline Process

Barrie follows a pretty traditional outline formula that she learned back in her college days as an English major writing term papers.

She pulls up a blank page on the computer and types in the working title for a book. Since she write self-improvement books, she creates a working title that relates to the ultimate benefit of the reader.

For example, with Barrie’s book, Finely Tuned: How to Thrive As a Highly Sensitive Person or Empath, the how-to part is what kept her focused on the goal of the book.

Then she can flesh out how to get readers from Point A, which is where they are now, to Point B, which is where they want to be. She thinks about how to lead the reader to understand more about the problem or challenge they’re facing, as well as the benefits of dealing with the problem and how the problem is impacting their lives. And finally, she offers solutions and actions to help change or correct the problem.

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Breaking it down this way allows you to see a clear path in your outline to move the content from problem to solution if you are working on a non-fiction book that provides solutions.

She outlines the different chapters and makes bullet points on any ideas that fit into each of the chapters. The first chapter almost always is an in-depth explanation of what the topic is about.

During the outline process, she gathers any relevant statistics, research, and quotes that she might use as gets into the meat of the writing process, and plugs these into different chapters in the outline.

All of this can be moved around or changed during the writing and editing process, but thinking about the topic in this linear way gives you some structure to work from as you dive into writing your book.

Outlining your book is like creating your daily “to-do” list. You could get things done without the list, but you’re much more productive when you have it.

Your outline helps you remember what want to include in the book. It keeps you focused and moving along in a logical direction. And it gives you some visual goals for your writing as you see clearly what you need to work on to complete your book.

As comedian, actor, director, writer and producer, Michael Showalter, says, “I am a big proponent of writing a great outline. That way you can avoid hitting a roadblock. There is no worse feeling than writing yourself into a corner but if you’ve figured it all out in the outline then you won’t have that problem.”