Learning how to outline a book properly is the secret weapon that you need to write an entire manuscript when you have a lot of demands on your time.
You’re an entrepreneurial author. You may have a business that requires your constant attention, or you may be a professional with a busy practice, or you may run a busy consultancy.
You’ve come to the realization that what you need right now to take your business, practice or consultancy to the next level is a book. A book that can open big doors and new markets. A book that can be used as a tool to convert new prospects, a book that will help you achieve the status of industry expert.
But there’s a roadblock on the way to your desired goal: lack of time.
Deep inside, you fear it’ll take a lot of time to write a book and you simply don’t have much of it available. You certainly don’t want to take time out of your family life or your sleep – you’ve already made enough sacrifices for the sake of your business.
You’re at a crossroads and unsure how to proceed.
But what if I told you that there’s a secret weapon at your disposal?
A weapon that:
- Will help you finish your book in record time
- Will make it possible for your book to literally “write itself”
- Will create the structure of your book with minimal effort on your part
- Will ensure that you never get writer’s block
This is a secret weapon used by the most successful nonfiction writers to write book after book after book, without seemingly ever running out of ideas.
How Do You Start Writing a Book?
There’s a key difference between an entrepreneurial author and a fiction author.
The fiction author is said to “have a book in them.” The entrepreneurial author “is the book itself.”
That’s right, technically speaking you’re a walking book. All those years learning, training and refining your skills, all those years serving clients and all those years teaching your skills to others mean that when you sit down to write your book you’re not going to have to think hard to come up with new ideas, new scenarios or new story lines.
The ideas will be drawn from your knowledge, the scenarios will be drawn from your client interactions and your story lines will be drawn from your life experience.
All you have to do now is to find the perfect “secret recipe” to download all that information out of your brain and onto the printed page.
That’s what I’ll help you achieve in this article.
How Do You Gather Your Thoughts?
The secret weapon you’re going to learn how to use next has two phases: the “Mind Mapping” phase and the “Outlining” phase.
- Mind Mapping is the technique that you’re going to use to do a brain dump of your thoughts and ideas into a format that you can easily structure and manipulate.
- Outlining is the technique that will allow you to turn that Mind Map into the table of contents of your book.
And I’m not talking about a straw man here. I’m talking about a fully fleshed out table of contents with every single topic that you’ll cover in your book, with the right flow and with such level of detail that your book will simply write itself.
All you’ll have to do now is to expand each topic with information that will come second nature to you, flowing directly from your professional experience and much faster than you think is possible.
As a matter of fact, not only will you not be “stuck” for ideas and content, but you’ll be overflowing with such a torrent of thoughts you won’t be able to write fast enough to capture it all in one sitting!
These are the same techniques that successful nonfiction authors in business, psychology, finance, health, law, coaching and many other genres use to keep coming up with new books in such a high frequency.
How Do You Organize Your Thoughts For Writing?
The first step you need to follow to organize your thoughts in preparation for your book is to create a Mind Map. You can learn how to use this technique in detail in my article: How to Use a Mind Map to Create a Great Book for Your Business.
In short, you’ll be creating a “map of your mind” as it pertains to the main idea or topic that you’ve chosen for your book. You’ll achieve this by drawing a mind map on a whiteboard or on a piece of paper, mimicking the same method your brain uses to store information.
Your mind map will include the main idea of your book at the center (typically conveyed in your book’s title and sub-title) and radiating out of it will list all the different areas that need to be explored further in order to support of your main idea.
These “branches,” or the key topics derived from them, will eventually be turned into book chapters.
Each branch then spawns a number of sub-branches as you expand the depth or complexity of each key topic into smaller building blocks. When you’re using this technique, you’ll be surprised how intuitive it feels. This is because the way you recall information to draw on the whiteboard maps very closely to the way information is stored in your brain.
And this is where you’ll notice time speeding up. Before you know it, you’ll have mapped out all your thoughts and ideas as they pertain to your book’s main idea. In the future, you’ll be using the same mind mapping technique with different main ideas at the center to create new books with ease.
Over time you’ll find that your brain is actually storing every book that you’ll ever write in a filing cabinet called “Main Idea 1,” “Main Idea 2,” and so on. But such a cabinet isn’t arranged linearly in rows and columns like a physical filing cabinet, but instead it’s arranged in a radial way, just like your mind map!
How About Writing Your Thoughts Down?
If you attempted to write your thoughts down “linearly,” sitting down with a laptop and just typing away, you may do well for a while if you happen to feel inspired at that moment. But when that river runs dry (and soon enough it will!) you may find yourself stuck trying to force thoughts onto the page.
With the use of a mind map, you’ll never be out of ideas.
How Do You Organize Your Book?
Your next job then is to take this “radial” information and structure it into a “linear format.”
- First, you’ll group the main branches thematically. These super chapters will become the main parts or sections of your book. For example, the first part of your book may be composed of chapters 1-4, the second part will contain chapters 5-8, and so on.
- Next, you’ll focus on the key topics of each main branch. They’ll connect to a number of subtopics which will expand on the information related to that key topic. The key topics will become your chapters.
- Finally, you’ll group the chapters’ subtopics. Sometimes a subtopic connects to enough sub-subtopics that it might warrant its own sub-chapter. Other times, you’ll combine two or more subtopics into one.
Depending on the depth of your mind map, you may need to go one level deeper. But don’t keep diving ever-deeper: beyond three levels, you may be adding too much complexity to your book.
How Do You Outline a Book?
In their simplest form, book outlines are numbered lists of the same kind you can find in any word processor.
To create a book outline, you begin by entering the “super chapters” into your document and labeling them “Part 1, Part 2, etc.) – you don’t need to name the parts yet.
Next, you begin placing the main branches or key topics into the numbered list. Hit the tab key before you go down to the next level so the word processor can begin numbering them again from the top of the count.
At this book-outline stage, you don’t need to worry about formal chapter names; that will come later on. For now, listing your topics is sufficient.
Next, for every key topic you’ll tab once to get to a level deeper and begin populating the subtopics that you grouped earlier. Again, don’t worry about creating formal names for the subtopics yet. Just write down enough information to identify them clearly – you can use a single word, a short phrase, or even a long phrase to jog your memory.
Finally, tab one more time to the next level (3rd) and repeat the above process for your sub-subtopics.
How Do You Write a Book Outline?
Now that you’ve finished populating your draft book outline, you can begin to give it the shape required to turn it into a proper book.
The first thing you want to do is to read your draft book outline and think about what the best roadmap would be for a reader to step through (e.g. Part 1 followed by Part 2 followed by Part 3? or perhaps Part 1 then part 3 then part 2?).
Next, find what the best chapter flow is within each part, and rearrange them by highlighting and dragging around chapters (along with all their contents). The outline numbering will be automatically re-sequenced.
Once you’ve created the right chapter sequence for each part of the book, repeat this process inside each chapter by rearranging the subtopics in the same fashion using the highlight and dragging technique.
How to Structure a Nonfiction Book
Now it’s time to clean up your book outline. To do that, start tightening (rewriting) all entries to make them less verbose if necessary.
Next, to achieve a balanced visual weight make sure that most chapters have approximately the same number of sub-chapters and that most sub-chapters have an equivalent number of sub-sub-chapters. In order to achieve this you may need to combine some entries.
Finally, it’s time to turn your book outline into a proper table of contents.
You need to begin substituting your book outline entries for actual chapter, sub-chapter and sub-sub-chapter headings. For this task, try your best to use language that will resonate with your target audience.
To create proper headings, aim to be:
Try to use as few words as possible to convey the main message of the chapter, sub-chapter or sub-sub-chapter. The best table of contents always looks clean and balanced – headings that are too short may skip key information and become confusing for readers, too verbose and your sentences will wrap around making your table of contents look like a plate of spaghetti.
Your table of contents is part roadmap and part sales tool. As such, you have to have chapter and sub-chapters headings that are enticing to your readers, that speak directly to them and that address their problems or challenges.
Use language your readers can relate to and always try to make them the subject of your headings, when applicable (e.g. use “How Your Mind Works” instead of “How Our Mind Works”).
You’ve now created the first table of contents of your book. Why do I say first? For a number of reasons:
Firstly, expect your table of contents to be a living document as you go through the process of writing your book.
As you create actual content for your book, you’ll discover new ways to rearrange your chapters and sub-chapters which make more sense to you.
This is not only normal but also desired. Why? Because your original table of contents is the starting point of your book-writing journey, not the end. You want your writing to inform your final roadmap. Your initial roadmap is just there to kick-start your journey.
Secondly, when you pass your manuscript over to your editor, it may come back with suggestions to further refine the table of contents and that may result in new rearranging.
Thirdly, before you start writing your book, it’s a very good idea to get outside feedback about the structure of your table of contents – you’re just too close to the action. Enlist a small group of advance readers to help you run a reality check on your table of contents before you begin to turn it into a book.
Always Try to Get Feedback From Members of Your Target Audience
To get the best feedback, enlist the help of a small group of members of your target audience. They’re the people that you’re trying to help the most, so their feedback will be invaluable to you. You’ll find out first-hand whether elements of your roadmap resonate with them, or fall on deaf ears.
Although it’s perfectly okay to run your table of contents by peers and colleagues, since they’re not part of your target audience their feedback will tend to be more academic in nature. This can be valuable, but not as much as feedback from your actual target audience.
Finally, when it comes to family and friends, ask them for their opinion by all means, but do take their feedback with a grain of salt, because it’s quite rare that they’ll provide you with critical comments. In most cases, family and friends will tend to give you “benign” feedback because they want to be supportive.
Now it’s time to turn your table of contents into a proper book!
I highly recommend that you read my article: How to Write a Compelling Book in 12 Steps: A Must-Read Guide for Nonfiction Authors. It’ll provide you with all the information you need to turn your table of contents into a great book.
All the best on your book outlining journey!
If you enjoyed this article and are in the process of writing a nonfiction book, be sure to check out my free nonfiction success guide, drawn from years of experience editing books for bestselling authors (including a New York Times bestseller) and ghostwriting for CEOs and politicians. Simply click here to get instant access.
Leave me a comment below if you have any questions or a specific need that I can help you address – I operate an author services firm that specializes in helping entrepreneurs, professionals and business owners who want to publish books as a calling card for prospects, to establish their status as an expert or to generate additional leads for their businesses.
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Bennett R. Coles is an award-winning author of six books published through Harper Collins (New York) and Titan Publishing Group (London). He is also the publisher at Promontory Press, editor for multiple bestselling authors (including a NY Times bestseller), ghostwriter for CEOs and politicians and the founder of Cascadia Author Services, a boutique full-service firm that specializes in premium author services specifically designed for busy professionals. Our end-to-end services include writer coaching, ghostwriting, editing, proofing, cover design, book layout, eBook production, marketing, printing and distribution.