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Writing a Book Outline: It's Easier Than You Think

Award-winning writer Kathy Widenhouse has helped hundreds of nonprofits and writers produce successful content and has gained 600K+ views for her writing tutorials. She is the author of 9 books. See more of Kathy’s content here.

Writing a book outline is easier than you think.

Writing a book outline with Word Wise at Nonprofit Copywriter #WritingTips #FreelanceWriting

This is a distinctively different process for nonfiction books when compared with fiction, which requires character development and conflict.

Getting your nonfiction outline on paper is an important step.

It helps you move beyond inertia to concrete action in writing your book. The outline’s job is to simply get yourself going in the writing process.

A key to writing a book outline is to recognize two important truths from the get-go:

  • An outline is not the finished product. 
  • An outline gives you a framework for your book writing project.

Writing a book outline is not hard if you break down the process into just two smaller steps.

1. Brainstorm Your Ideas

The first step is to get your ideas for your book out of your brain and onto paper. (Here’s why this helps you write the book.)

This process may take a few days or weeks. The length of time differs from writer to writer and from book to book. The point is to get started and then stick with it.

There are a number of ways you can go about this process. 

  • Use a legal pad and a pencil to jot down your ideas.
  • Create a new computer file. 
  • Start a notebook in Evernote
  • Use a mind map – a drawing with one central idea and branches with sub-topics to show how concepts are related.
  • Check out writing software like Scrivener and ProWritingAid. I like to go old school because I like to get my hands on things and see the big-picture view, but many writers find online gadgetry useful.

Whatever method you choose, start by writing down every idea you think you may want to address in your book. This is not the time to sort through and eliminate, but rather to gather and record. Be sure to include:

  • Points about your topic. You will evaluate through these later and choose which are key ideas to convert to chapter themes and which can be used as supporting material.
  • Supporting content: Record information about your book topic that you’d like to mention or expand on with more research. Don’t worry if you don’t have detailed information at this point. Instead, make a note of the point, where you found it, or where to look to learn more. 
  • Stories. Jot down personal stories, interesting statistics, or unique anecdotes that you can use as illustrations or as hooks for each chapter.
  • Takeaways. What are applications that you’d like your readers to understand? Make note of those lessons or principles.

As you brainstorm, record just as much as you need. You may be tempted to head off on a rabbit trail of research. Resist this urge. You can flesh out the material later. For now, you simply need to make a note of your ideas – even ones that seem out of sync or far-fetched for your overall topic. 

Remember: the point of brainstorming is not to create a finished product. The point is to get your information out of your brain so you can put it in a semblance of order.

When you cannot at the moment think of any other ideas you want to include in your book, then move on to organizing ideas. Other content will surface during the writing process. But at this point, give yourself permission to move on from brainstorming.

2. Organize Your Ideas

Once you’ve gathered ideas and concepts – likely a lot of them – you need to organize them.

One of the easiest ways to do this is to record each idea you gathered onto an individual index card. Each principle, point, story, statistic, and takeaway.

Then set aside an afternoon, lay out the cards on your dining room table or your living room floor, and begin to sort. 

Sort Into Topics

Look for patterns or ideas that belong together. Give the set of cards a name. You can change the name later, but for now you have chapter names.

Sort Into an Order

Once your ideas are clumped into groups, you need to put them in order. Sometimes the outline order is evident right away. If not, ask yourself two questions:

  • If I wasn’t familiar with this topic or if the topic was confusing to me, how would I want it explained? 
  • What would I need to know first?

The answer to one or both of those questions can give you an indication about how to organize chapters. You can also use this set of 6 outline formats to consider when writing a book outline.

Take The Next Step

Now you’ve got a big-picture framework for your book. The next step is to organize the content in each chapter.

Then you’ll write your book one chapter at a time. (This book writing plan can help.)

Writing a book outline is easier than you think. Just start with recording your ideas.

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