Are you struggling to organize your thoughts and ideas for your new nonfiction book? Are you finding it difficult to maintain focus and clarity throughout the writing process? If so, you may be missing a properly formatted book outline.
An outline is the spinal cord of your nonfiction book. It’ll not only keep it structurally together, but it’ll also act as a conduit for the flow of information.
Without one, your writing will feel rudderless and the flow of information in your book will feel erratic.
In this blog post, we’ll explore what a book outline is, why you need one and, most importantly, how to create a great one for your nonfiction book in seven easy steps.
What Is a Book Outline?
A book outline is a document that provides a clear roadmap for your nonfiction book. It’s a plan that helps you organize your ideas, structure your content, and ensure that your writing is focused and clear.
Outlines typically have a hierarchical structure that defines the flow of information in your book. But they’re more than just a table of contents. They also provide the prompts that you need in order to begin writing each chapter and section of your book.
How to Outline a Nonfiction Book in 7 Easy Steps
Now, creating an outline from scratch is a lot easier than you may think. Remember that all the required information for your book is already in one easy-to-find place: your brain.
All you have to do now is find a structured way to dump this knowledge onto the page in a format that’s helpful for writing.
So, without further ado, here’s a simple 7-step process for creating an outline for your nonfiction book:
1. Define your purpose and audience
Defining your purpose and audience is a critical first step in outlining your book. Without a clear understanding of why you’re writing the book and who you’re writing it for, it’ll be challenging to create an outline that effectively meets your goals.
When defining your purpose, ask yourself why you want to write this book. What message do you want to convey? What problem do you want to solve for your readers? What information do you want to share? Defining your purpose will help you stay focused and avoid getting side-tracked during the writing process.
Once you’ve established a clear purpose, it’s time to consider your target audience. Who are you writing for? What are their interests, needs, and desires? What level of expertise do they have on the topic?
Understanding your audience will help you tailor your writing style, tone, and content to their needs, ensuring that your book resonates with them and meets their expectations.
2. Conduct research and gather information
After defining your purpose and audience, the next step in outlining your book is to conduct thorough research and gather information.
Research is a crucial part of the outlining process, as it’ll provide you with the necessary knowledge and insight to fill potential gaps in the flow of your content. This will also help you later on when you compile a list of your external sources.
Take thorough notes during your research process to help you organize the information and consider using a spreadsheet to help you keep track of your sources and citations.
3. Create a working title and subtitle
Your book title and subtitle are the first things potential readers will see, and they’ll have a significant impact on whether or not they decide to pick up your book.
But, having a working title through your outlining and writing process is also a great psychological motivator for you as well, even if it changes later on.
When creating your title, start by brainstorming a list of potential candidates that relate to your book’s subject matter and purpose. Try to come up with as many ideas as possible, then narrow down your list to your top choices.
Your subtitle should provide additional context and information about your book. It should complement your title and give readers a clear idea of what your work is about.
Once you’ve settled on your title and subtitle, it’s a good idea to test them out on a few people in your target audience. Ask for feedback to see if they effectively communicate what your book is about and if they grab the reader’s attention.
4. Write a one-sentence summary of the book
This summary, often referred to as “the elevator pitch,” will help you distill your ideas into a clear and concise statement that’ll guide your writing. Your one-sentence summary should be specific, attention-grabbing, and memorable.
To write it, start by identifying the main theme of your book. Then, think about the key points or arguments you’ll be making. Finally, think about the impact you want your book to have on your readers.
In short, your one-sentence summary should give readers a clear idea of what to expect from your book and entice them to read it. It should also make your book stand out from the crowd, especially if you’re writing about a topic with a lot of competition.
5. Develop a table of contents
This is the step where you begin to shape the flow of information in your book. The goal of a table of contents is to help you organize your ideas in a logical and coherent manner.
It should be made up of a hierarchical list of chapters and sections, starting with your main topic and then breaking it down into subtopics.
When developing your table of contents, incorporate the key themes you want to cover as chapter and subchapter titles, taking care to avoid including unnecessary information that may not be central to your overall structure.
Now, don’t spend time trying to make your titles perfect. Just consider them to be working titles for now that can be improved upon later.
Once you create the first pass of your table of contents, review it and refine it as needed. For example, you may find that some chapters or sections are too broad or too narrow and need to be adjusted.
If the scope of a chapter is too broad, then divide it in two. If it’s too narrow, then make it a subchapter. Just ensure that the overall flow of your book is logical and easy to follow, with each chapter building on the previous one.
6. Write chapter summaries and headings
Now that you have a clear structure for your book in the form of a table of contents, it’s time to dive deeper into each chapter. Taking the time to write chapter summaries and headings at this stage will help you organize your ideas further.
Begin by brainstorming the key ideas and concepts you want to cover in each chapter. Once you have this list, create a summary for each chapter that captures its main points.
Your chapter summaries should be concise, ideally no more than a paragraph or two, and should provide an overview of what readers can expect to learn from that chapter. Later on, you’ll be taking advantage of these summaries as your writing prompts.
Next, create headings for each chapter that reflect the main ideas covered in that subchapter. Your headings should be descriptive and concise, and they should provide readers with a sense of what to expect to learn from that section.
7. Revise and refine the outline
After you’ve completed the previous six steps, take the time to revise and refine your outline. This will help you ensure your book has a solid structure to support your writing.
Look for any areas where your content could benefit from additional details. Also, check that the order of your chapters makes sense and that each chapter builds on the previous one.
At this stage, you may need to reorder your chapters or move content around to ensure that the information in your book flows naturally.
Well done! Now, you’ll have a fully fleshed out outline that’s clear, concise, and effective.
This will help you stay focused as you begin writing your book and ensure you’re creating a high-quality, engaging piece of nonfiction that meets the needs of your readers.
While there’s no one-size-fits-all outlining template you can use since each book is different, the above steps will definitely help you get going in the right direction.
Remember that virtually 100% of your book already exists in your brain, so you’re not really starting from scratch here.
All you need is the right outlining process to get this information downloaded from your random-access memory onto the page in a logical and structured way.
Outlining your nonfiction book will help you stay focused, organized, and motivated throughout the writing process.
So, start outlining your book today and see how it makes a huge difference in your nonfiction writing journey.
Harry Wallett is the Managing Director of Cascadia Author Services. He has a decade of experience as the Founder and Managing Director of Relay Publishing, which has sold over 3 million copies of books in all genres for its authors, and looks after a team of 50+ industry professionals working across the world.
Harry is inspired by the process of book creation and is passionate about the stories and characters behind the prose. He loves working with the writers and has shepherded 1000s of titles to publication over the years. He knows first-hand what it takes to not only create an unputdownable book, but also how to get it into the hands of the right readers for success.
Books are still one of the most powerful mediums to communicate ideas and establish indisputable authority in a field, boosting your reach and stature. But publishing isn’t a quick and easy process—nor should it be, or everyone would do it!
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