You’ve decided to write a nonfiction book so you search for “how to outline a book,” only you find that virtually every article posted is addressed to fiction writers who want to outline their novels.
I wanted to write this article specifically for nonfiction writers like you, so that you can learn the necessary roadmap to go from the idea stage to a completed book outline, including a table of contents.
I’ll share below ten easy steps to get you from A to Z in the most direct way. However, you have to keep in mind that easy does not mean effortless; it means clear and straightforward (you’ll still have to put in the hard work).
What you won’t have to do is to spend hours trying to figure out what the right steps are. The methodology shown in the steps below has been fine-tuned and time-tested by thousands of nonfiction writers over decades and you’ll be able to put it to use in order to produce immediate results. Let’s get started…
How Do You Write an Effective Outline?
There are many ways to write a book outline, and it varies according to genre. In this article I’ll be focusing on an outline process for nonfiction books, but not just any kind of nonfiction.
I’ll be focusing specifically on problem-solving nonfiction. That is, books written by entrepreneurial authors, professionals, people with a practice, consultants and coaches who want to offer a unique solution to a big problem that their target audience is experiencing.
If this is you, then you’ll have a key advantage over most other authors in that your book is already inside of you – it’s made up of your many years of experience and skill-building in your field, your time in business, your time solving problems for clients, etc.
The task ,then, is to help you get the book that’s sitting in your brain onto the written page in a way that it can be easily structured.
To create an effective outline for your nonfiction book, you’ll have to begin with a main idea and then go though a series of steps that allow you to map out the book out of your brain into a diagram that you can then manipulate, organize and structure to turn it into an outline and a table of contents.
Here Are the Ten Steps:
Step 1: Define Your Book’s Main Idea
Before you can begin the process of creating your book outline, you need to hone into the main idea behind your book. As someone who’s in business for yourself, you probably cater to a number of different clients who experience different problems.
Perhaps you offer a suite of solutions to address different sets of circumstances. However, when it comes to writing nonfiction you’ll have to focus on a single problem and a unique solution.
Why? Because nonfiction readers have two expectations:
- They have a big problem to solve and are looking for a unique solution. They don’t want to deal with a business through a book, they want to deal directly with you as the expert, someone who gets them and knows how to help them solve their problem.
- They want your book to be written just for them. They want you to address them as if you were a friend trying to help. They want your book to read as if it was written especially for them.
Now it’s time to define your main idea. What’s your audience’s most significant problem for which you’ve created a unique solution? What single problem are you helping your audience solve?
Here are some famous examples from the book trade for your reference:
Title: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People / Problem: I’m a procrastinator and I’m paying dearly for it.
Title: The 4-Hour Workweek / Problem: I’m tired of the rat race and I want freedom.
Title: The Mindfulness Code / Problem: I’m constantly anxious and don’t know how to quiet my mind.
For a more in-depth article about how to define your main book idea, click here to read How to Come Up With Great Book Ideas For Business Owners.
Step 2: Create Your Book’s Mind Map
Once you’ve chosen your book’s main idea, which clearly reflects how your unique solution solves a big problem for your target audience, it’s time to generate your book outline.
The technique that you’re going to use is called “Mind Mapping.” It was developed in the 1970’s by British author Tony Buzan, and it’s the most effective means of creating an outline for a problem-solving nonfiction book.
This technique is effective because it mimics the way your brain stores and retrieves information. In essence, a “mind map” is a pictorial representation of all the information related to your book that’s sitting in your brain.
First, you place your main idea at the center of the mind map diagram, and then you expand out radially by drawing a number of main branches. These branches represent the key topics that your main idea will be broken into.
Coming out of each key topic you now draw a set of sub-branches that make up all the sub-topics that your key topic will be broken into. Finally, you repeat this process to further break down your sub-topics.
Here’s an example of the mind map for one of Tony Buzan’s popular nonfiction books:
Step 3: Group Mind Map Branches Together
Once you have your mind map captured on paper, it’s time to begin the process of structuring it in order to turn it into a book outline.
As you can probably sense by now, your main branches will eventually become your book’s chapters, the sub-branches your sub-chapters, and so on.
The first step in structuring your book is to group together main branches that fit thematically and turn them into a book part with a part title.
Here’s an Example:
If you were writing a book about how to alter your audience’s beliefs to achieve goals, you could assign main branches for topics such as the belief system, the power of perception and how the mind works. These could be grouped together as a theme that deals with the inner working of the mind.
Then, let’s say that you also have branches related to the role of their minds in causing procrastination, setting goals, dealing with strengths and weaknesses, etc. These could be grouped as a theme that deals with how their minds can affect their career, and so on.
When you’re done grouping branches into themes, you can begin to create the flow of your book by numbering these top sections. So, in the above example you’ll have: Part 1 – How Your Mind Works; Part 2 – How Your Mind Influences Your Career, etc.
Step 4: Rearrange Key Topics Within a Part
Next, you’re going to choose each part and rearrange all the key topics in it to create your desired flow. Each key topic will eventually be turned into a chapter number and a chapter title.
Step 5: Re-arrange the Sub-Topics Within a Topic
You’re now going to repeat this process for each chapter. You’re going to take all the sub-topics that the key-topic branches into and you’re going to order them in the way the best fits the flow you want that chapter to have.
If you have a third level of sub-sub-topics, you might combine two or more and turn them into a new sub-topic. Or you may want to retain it as a part of an existing sub-topic.
Your sub-topics will eventually be turned into your sub-chapters.
Step 6: Generate the Book Outline
When you’re done with Steps 3-5, you can begin to piece together your book outline.
Just enter the information into your favorite word processor as a numbered list, with your part numbers being the top level, then tabbing to enter each chapter in the second level, and tabbing once more to enter the sub-chapters under each chapter.
Repeat this process for each sub-chapter if you have sub-subchapters.
How Is an Outline Supposed to Look?
Here’s an example:
- Part 1: How Your Mind Works
- How the mind works
- The conscious and subconscious mind
- Where thoughts originate
- How the mind works
- Your belief system
- Beliefs from your upbringing
- Beliefs and your emotions
- The power of perception
- Part 2: How Your Mind Influences Your Career
- The role of your mind in procrastination
- The role of your mind in setting goals
- Dealing with strengths and weaknesses
- Part 3: How Your Mind Influences Your Relationships
- The role of your mind in procrastination
Step 7: Choose Your Front-Matter Sections
With the book outline out of the way, it’s now time to build it up into a full table of contents. To do that you need to add the front matter before the book outline.
The front matter is composed of some or all of the following sections. It’s entirely up to you what to include from the list below:
- Testimonials page or pages (optional)
- Title page (mandatory)
- Copyright page (mandatory, placed on the back of the title page)
- Page with a quotation or a message (optional)
- Dedication page (optional)
- Table of contents (not mandatory but highly recommended)
- Foreword (optional) – this is written by an authority in your field
- Preface (optional) – this is written by you
- Acknowledgements (optional)
Step 8: Add Your Book’s Introduction
Next, it’s time to introduce readers to your book. The introduction is not a summary of your book’s content; instead, it’s a sales letter to convince readers to buy your book.
Its goal is to hook readers by teasing them with the results that they can expect to achieve, but without revealing any of your secrets – those will be contained in the body of the book.
This is the most important page of text in your book and as such, it should be written last, once your manuscript is completed with no further editing to be done.
The structure of this “sales letter” is contained in my companion article How to Write a Compelling Book Introduction That Will Move the Needle, so I won’t repeat it here, this is the page that’s going to close the deal for your book and you should take great care when you write it.
The last paragraph of your introduction will transition into your first chapter.
Step 9: Choose Your Back-Matter Sections
The final piece in your book outline is to add any required back matter pages after your body ends. Here are some of your choices:
- Afterword (optional) – this can be used as a closing statement for your book; your parting words.
- Appendices (optional) – these can be used for additional information that didn’t fit or didn’t work in the body of the book.
- Glossary (optional)
- Index (optional)
- References or bibliography (optional)
- About the author (highly recommended) – this is where you tell your readers how to reach out to you.
Step 10: Create Your Book’s Table of Contents
Finally, it’s time to put together your table of contents. The first thing you need to do is to go through your book outline and create a title for every part, topic, subtopic and sub-subtopic.
Although only your chapter titles will be shown in your table of contents, all titles need to be written in a clear and inviting way. Unlike the body book outline, which is meant as your roadmap for writing your book, the table of contents is meant for your readers as a navigational tool and also as a secondary sales tool (more on this later).
So, on top of creating the logical flow of your book, your table of contents entries need to be written with the intent of enticing the reader to read each section.
In addition, you need to create chapter titles with an economy of words in mind because they’ll also appear in the heading of each left-hand page, where space is limited.
As I mentioned before, your table of content entries will also act as a secondary sales tool. Your readers will first be drawn by your book’s cover and title. They’ll then pick it up and read the marketing copy in the back cover. Next, they’ll quickly scan your table of contents and perhaps browse some pages randomly.
But if your table of contents intrigues them, they’ll next turn to your introduction. That’s why it’s so important that your section titles be engaging – readers love to discover new information in books!
Finally, here’s an example of a table of contents:
Note: all front matter before the table of contents is not numbered and therefore not listed in it.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Part 1: How Your Mind Works
How The Mind Works …3
Your Belief System …11
The Power of Perception …23
Part 2: How Your Mind Influences Your Career
The Role of Your Mind in Procrastination …63
The Role of Your Mind in Setting Goals …75
Dealing With Strengths and Weaknesses …83
Part 3: How Your Mind Influences Your Relationships
I’m glad you made it all the way! Now it’s time to start crafting the outline of your book. Follow these ten steps and you’ll create a great non-fiction book without having to spin your wheels. If you’d like to learn about my steps for creating great nonfiction that solves a problem for your target audience, read my article: How to Write a Compelling Book in 12 Steps: A Must-Read Guide for Nonfiction Authors.
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 just 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.