With few exceptions, most nonfiction books are written to inform and educate readers about a particular area of interest. This could involve acquiring new skills to enhance an aspect of their personal lives or careers, learning new techniques to solve a problem they’re experiencing, or further developing a hobby by practicing and implementing new projects, ideas, etc.
Since the information you’re writing about will likely be new to the reader, you’ll need to present it in a logical way that can be easily digested without causing confusion. A properly formatted nonfiction outline will make sure your book is understood.
At a minimum, a well-formatted outline will become the foundation of your table of contents, and clarity here is paramount. After all, a poorly structured table of contents can become the death knell for your book sales, because that’s one of the first sections of your book that’ll be browsed by potential customers — if its content doesn’t spark their interest, or if it lacks proper structure and it’s confusing to read, your window to make a sale will be quickly shut.
But more importantly, a well-thought-out and well-formatted outline will help you structure your nonfiction book in a way that will simplify and expedite your writing process significantly.
In this article, I’ll show you the best approach to create a nonfiction outline format that you can put to work right away.
How Do You Format a Nonfiction Outline?
When it comes to creating effective outlines, there are many formats that can be put to use depending of the nature of the work. From essays to research papers to fiction books, some writers prefer purely numerical outline formats, purely alphabetical ones or a combination of both styles.
Most nonfiction books, however, tend to gravitate to a formatting sequence that begins with Roman numerals to list the main topics, using indented capital letters to list sub-topics, followed by Arabic numerals to list subdivisions in the sub-topics, and if needed, lowercase letters to segment this information further.
Here’s an example:
I- How our mind works
A- The conscious and subconscious mind
1- What is consciousness?
a- Conscious breathing
b- The power of meditation
2- How to access your subconscious
B- Where thoughts originate
II- Your belief system
A- Beliefs from your upbringing
B- Beliefs and your emotions
C- Nature vs. nurture.
III- The power of perception
IV- The role of your mind in everyday life
How Do You Write an Outline?
The first step to create a nonfiction outline is to develop a mind map of your book. Mind mapping is a technique used by many professional nonfiction authors to develop the overall structure of their books, and it entails charting the flow of thoughts triggered by the main idea or thesis of your book.
One way to arrive at your main idea is to ask yourself the following question: What’s your audience’s most significant problem for which you’ve created a unique solution? In other words, you need to figure out what’s the pressing problem that you’re going to help your audience solve and then develop your main idea around your solution.
For example, if the problem you’re trying to solve for your readers is their difficulty sustaining weight loss and your unique solution isn’t based on fitness or dieting but on the use of our mind instead, your main idea may be “How to Turn Off Your Hunger Signals Using Mindfulness Meditation.”
Once you’ve developed your main idea, and knowing that this is your area of expertise, you’ll then use the mind mapping technique to turn it into a “map” of all the knowledge percolating in your brain about this idea, all your thoughts, experience and recollections, all your client interactions while putting your solution to work in your professional life.
Since our brains store information in a “random storage” instead of a linear fashion, you’ll need to extract this information as a stream of consciousness and display it in a way where you can begin to shape it into a basic structure.
To this effect, begin by writing down your main idea in the center of a large piece of paper, or a whiteboard if you have one. Then coming out radially from the center of your mind map, begin to draw branches leading to the main topics that stem from your main idea.
Using the above example, main branches might be:
- The mechanics of satiation
- Hunger signals
- Mind control
- The physiology of hunger
- How nutrients get absorbed into the body
- The digestive system
Your goal is to come up with as many topics as possible in no particular order, keeping in mind that more is always better because often some of your topics will become subtopics.
Once you do a few passes iterating around your main topics, you’ll then pick one of those topics and repeat this exercise, but focused instead on the sub-topics that would fall under it as you expand radially from the main topic.
Here’s an example of the mind map of a book by Tony Buzan, the nonfiction author who popularized its use in the 70’s:
Turning Your Mind Map into an Outline
Once you’ve flushed out your mind map to the point that you feel that no more iterations are necessary, it’s time to “convert” your mind map into a proper outline.
The first step is to number the main topics on the map into their logical order or appearance. One way to do this is to decide what the introductory topic will be and then choose the conclusive one. Then simply place the remaining topics in between in the sequence that makes the most logical sense.
The second step is to apply the same strategy to your sub topics. Once you’ve gone through the first step, simply pick one main topic at a time in no particular order and repeat the above process to create a sequence of sub-topics.
The third and final step is to transcribe this information into an ordered list on your favorite word processor to produce your formatted outline.
Depending on what word processor you’re using, you may need to play with the numbered-list settings to make the Roman numerals appear first, followed by capital letters, Arabic numerals and finally lowercase letters — not all word processors will apply this progression automatically.
Once your outline is correctly formatted, you’ll have all the necessary prompts to begin writing your book.
In fact, since your outline already contains all the information to write your book in the correct sequence, you don’t even need to write your book in that order. You can simply pick the topic the inspires you most that day and just write about it, even if it appears mid-way through the book.
In this way, you’ll never have to worry about suffering from the dreaded writer’s block — your book is already inside of you and all you’re doing is following a series of prompts to transfer this information from your brain to the written page.
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 just to generate additional leads for their businesses.
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Bennett R. Coles is an award-winning author of 6 books published through Harper Collins (NY) and Titan Publishing Group (UK). He is also the publisher at Promontory Press and the founder/CEO 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, printing, distribution and marketing.