Learn How to Write a Nonfiction Outline in 5 Easy Steps

by Bennett R. Coles

Writing Outline

In this article, I’ll show you the best approach to writing a nonfiction book outline that can be put to work immediately.

Creating an outline is one of the most efficient ways to write a nonfiction book from scratch, because a well-constructed outline will provide you with a point by point road map of ideas that you can use to kick-start your writing process.

An outline will:

  • Create the structure of your book’s table of contents
  • Make it possible for your book to “write itself”
  • Ensure that you never suffer from writer’s block

How Do You Write an Effective Outline?

To create an effective outline for your nonfiction book, you’ll have to begin with a main topic or main point and then go though a series of steps to map out your book’s content with ideas that are simmering in your head.

In order to arrive at your main topic you need to ask yourself the following question: What’s my audience’s most significant challenge for which I’ve created a unique solution?

In a sense, you need to figure out what’s the most pressing problem that you’re going to help your audience solve and then develop your main idea around your solution.

Once you’ve settled on this main idea, you’ll then use the mind mapping technique to turn it into a diagram or “map” listing everything that’s stored in your mind related to this topic (read: How to Create a Mind Map for a Nonfiction Book for instructions in detail).

Finally, you’ll lift your overall book structure from your mind map and use it to lay out your book outline by following the outlining process described below.

5 Easy Steps for Creating an Outline that Rocks!

Step 1: Group All Mind Map Branches Together

Your completed mind map will identify the specific topics and subtopics that make up your main idea. These are the main branches and sub-branches that radiate out of the center of the map — for reference, here’s an example of a mind map from one of Tony Buzan’s books, the British author who popularized their use back in the 70’s:

Your next task is to group together the main branches into themes and turn them into a book part or a section.

As an example, say you’re writing a book about the belief system and goal setting (your main idea). You could assign main branches for topics such as “how the mind works,” “the belief system” and “the power of perception.” These three topics could be grouped together as a single theme that deals with the inner workings of the mind.

Then, let’s say that you also group other branches related to “the role of our minds in procrastination,” “setting goals” and “dealing with our strengths and weaknesses.” These could be grouped as a new theme that deals with how our minds can impact our careers, and so on.

Once you’ve grouped all main branches into themes, you can then begin to create the logical structure of your book by numbering these top sections: e.g. Section 1 – How the mind works; Section 2 – How the mind influences careers, etc.

Now, pick one of the main branches, say “the belief system,” and group all its sub-branches. The main branch will become the chapter and its sub-branches will become the sub-chapters. Repeat this process for each of the remaining main branches.

If you have a third level of content (sub-sub-branches), then repeat the same type of process as shown above until all branches are exhausted.

Step 2: Generate the Initial Book Outline

Now enter the above information into your favorite word processor as a numbered list, with your section numbers as the top level, then tab to enter each chapter in the second level, and finally tab once more in order to enter the sub-chapters below each chapter. Your main idea will eventually be turned into your book title.

Here’s how the outline in our example above would begin to shape up:

Section 1: The inner workings of the mind (this is an outline section)

                     1-1 How the mind works (this is an outline chapter)

                                       1-1-1 The conscious and subconscious mind (this is an outline sub-chapter)

                                       1-1-2 Where thoughts originate

                                       1-1-3 ………

                     1-2 The belief system

                                       1-2-1 Beliefs from your upbringing

                                       1-2-2 Beliefs and your emotions

                                       1-2-3 ………

                     1-3 The power of perception

                                       1-3-1 ………

                                       1-3-2 ………

Section 2: How the mind influences careers

                     2-1 The role of the mind in procrastination

                                       2-1-1 ………

                                       2-1 2 ………

                     2-2 The role of the mind in setting goals

                                       2-2-1 ………

                                       2-2-2 ………

                     2-3 Dealing with strengths and weaknesses

                                       2-3 1 ………

                                       2-3-2 ………

Section 3: How the mind influences relationships

                     3-1 ………

                     3-2 ………

Step 3: Add Your Book’s Front Matter to the Outline

The front matter appears before the main body of the book and is composed of one or many pages from the following list:

  • Testimonials (optional)
  • Title page (mandatory)
  • Copyright page (mandatory, placed on the back of the title page)
  • Page with a quotation or a message (optional)
  • Dedication (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)
  • Introduction

Step 4: Add Your Book’s Back Matter to the Outline

The back matter appears after the body of the book and is composed of one or many pages from the following list:

  • 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 share details about you with your readers and tell them how to get in contact with you.

Step 5: Turn Your Outline into Your Book’s Table of Contents

Go through your book outline from top to bottom and create a final title or heading for every section, main topic, sub-topic and sub-sub-topic. When doing so, keep in mind that your table of contents will become a navigational tool for your readers, so you need to ensure that all your headings fit into a narrative of ideas that flows with a clear purpose.

Another consideration is that your table of contents will often be browsed by prospective readers before they purchase your book, so you need to make sure that all headings are written in a way to entice people to want to read further — readers love it when a table of contents piques their interest!

Next Steps

Since your outline already contains all the information and ideas required in order to begin writing your book in the correct sequence, just know that you don’t need to write your book from top to bottom. You can simply pick the outline topic that inspires you most that day and start writing.

Thanks for reading and best of luck!

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 writers (including a NYT 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 need any help – 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.

Here are some related posts I highly recommend:

How to Write a Compelling Book in 12 Steps: A Must-Read Guide for Nonfiction Authors

Write Your Own Book and Become an Expert: 11 Reasons Why You Should

How to Grow Your Business Writing a Nonfiction Book

How Long Does it Take to Write a Book to Help Grow Your Business?

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 writers (including a NY Times bestseller), ghost writer 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 writers coaching, ghostwriting, editing, proofing, cover design, book layout, eBook production, marketing, printing and distribution.

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