Keys to Writing a Non-Fiction Outline

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Fundamentals series: Brilliant Idea Books
writing a non fiction outline

This post, the second in a series on the Fundamentals of Self Publishing Your Business Book, tackles the sticky question of non-fiction outlines.

To outline or not to outline…

I suspect a few business people have the innate ability to apply the same logic and clear thinking used in their business when they sit down with a laptop and construct their book. Ideas flow naturally with a solid structure and foundation.  And the writing seems effortless.

The majority of us, however, need some guidelines and that’s where an outline comes in.

Based on my experience working with business authors, there are three basic steps to crafting a solid, workable outline that will see you through the whole project.

#1: Create a Mindmap

On a blank sheet of paper write your book’s title (or topic) in the centre. Sounds simple enough. Remember you are the business expert in your field – so perhaps the name of your company in the center might be a place to start. Or you might want to select some phrases from your mission statement.

Jot down all the ideas that you have around the edge. You can use circles for each idea or lines connecting back.  Don’t worry about putting them in order or selecting between them – just get everything down.

Once you’re confident you’ve captured all your key ideas, you can start prioritizing them. Which ones belong in my book? Are some of the ideas too basic, or too advanced? Do I know what I want to say and can I explain it easily?

Now step away. Ignore it for a day or two to distance yourself from the information. When you’re ready, go back and look at it fresh. Do you see topics that are similar enough to be covered in the same chapter? Circle or number them. Are there any topics that don’t really fit in with your overall idea? Start deleting them now.

For some writers this may be enough to keep them on track, but for others this exercise feeds directly into a chapter outline.

#2: Create a Chapter-by-Chapter Outline

Your next step is to turn your mindmap into a chapter-by-chapter outline: this could very well be the basic table of contents for your book.

You might want to start with an “Introduction” and end with a “Conclusion” (though you can name those slightly differently if you want). But many writers work on the beginning and end much later in the process. In between, you’ll have chapters. If you find that you’ve got a lot of chapters, I think that’s OK – there is no rule on how few or how many you can have.

Obviously you’ve now moved to your computer. You’ll want to create your chapter-by-chapter outline as a document, so you can easily rearrange the chapters. Logically, you’ll want to put the more basic material at the start of your book, and work up gradually to more advanced topics.

If you are writing a narrative non-fiction book, then this gets a bit tricky. In this case you have to think about the narrative arc or how the book will span from the introduction to conclusion. It could be that it works to have specific chapters but with a narrative it is best to start the writing process and let this table of contents keep you on a clear path.

#3: Write Notes for Each Chapter

You’re starting to fill in the space now. It’s a great idea to also make a few notes on each chapter at the planning stage. It’s up to you exactly how you do this, so jot down subheadings or key points that you want to cover in each chapter.

Sometimes, you might find that one chapter is going to require a lot of research: if so, you might choose to change the scope of your book slightly and cut out that chapter, or you might want to keep it in but allow extra time for writing it. In either case don’t get hung up on adding or deleting chapters as you’re making progress.

Last – and this is something to both accept and remember. You will be re-writing your work. As mentioned at the start there are a few gifted writers who have the knack for letting the work unfold simply, easily, and beautifully. But the vast majority of us need to work, re-work and re-work again! the material until it feels absolutely right.

Photo Credit: the girl who owns the world via Compfight cc

More articles in this Fundamentals Series:

3 Approaches to Defining Your Business Book Concept