You’ve got an idea for a nonfiction book that’s too exciting to let go of, but you’ve no idea where to start. Time to make friends with the nonfiction book outline, future author. It’s one of the best and easiest ways to get a project from clever idea to “Can you please autograph my book?”
Outlines do several things for fledgling and established writers. They present opportunities to think through every aspect of the story you intend to write. Outlines are great at making sure you neither miss an important segment of information nor go off on tangents that veer away from your thesis.
Whether you love them or hate them, outlines force writers to consider information in chunks that naturally lead to the whole of the manuscript. And because this process builds in small increments, writers spot things of importance that have been omitted and recognize exactly where to plug them in, so the entirety of the manuscript flows as if this segment had been considered from the very start.
Does Outlining Have a History? You Bet.
You’ve probably never heard the name, but for those who pay attention to esoteric references and dates, a man named Ramon Llull (1232 to 1316) is said to have “invented” the outline as a way to develop a systematic, hierarchical way to organize material.
Rhetoricians point to Cicero et al as Llull’s inspiration and influencer, but the purist form of outlining didn’t really show up until the 18th century. By the 19th Century, it had become a standard way of organizing disparate materials.
Scientists like Carl Linnaeus say they could not have achieved levels of mastery had they not learned to outline and scientists like Newton and Leibniz also attribute their familiarity with outlining for helping them shape their findings into cohesive, logical compilations. You know you want to follow in the footsteps of these great thinkers!
10 Steps to Approaching Your Outline Fearlessly
- Grab a notebook, your tablet or the tool you feel most comfortable using. You want portability because while you’re in the rumination process, ideas can strike at any time.
- Write a single sentence that describes exactly what you intend to accomplish once your idea morphs from desire to outline to finished book, so you create a single focus.
- Start listing topics you intend to cover. Make them as general as you like and as short as possible because you could get hung up on sentence structure. Go for brevity and spontaneity. Your goal? Between 10 and 15 topics.
- Boot your computer and transfer your topics in list format so you can begin to eyeball the arrangement of each item on the list and figure out whether it’s placed logically and sequentially.
- Here’s where your ability to create this outline begins to make sense: You take a look at your list and realize that you can’t talk about topic #11 because you don’t introduce it until you get to #15.
- Shuffle things around until everything makes sense chronologically, having methodically introduced information that leads to what comes down the road. Shift information that naturally belongs elsewhere.
- Elevate some of the ideas that have been added as sub-topics to full topics because you’ve come to the realization that they’re important enough to cover more comprehensively.
- Address each topic on your outline as if it was the only one. List questions, primary objectives and incidentals.
- Repeat #8, treating each successive topic header as if it was the only one on your list.
- Having fleshed out each major topic section, you can congratulate yourself on having outlined the entirety of your non-fiction book and you know enough about where you’re headed to start writing.
Terrific Benefits You Receive From the Outlining Process
- People who outline usually spend less time editing than writers who have no framework from which to draw.
- You’ll also write faster and with more confidence because you’ll know exactly where you’re going.
- If you get bored working on one topic, you can switch to another section to refresh your mind.
- Like building blocks, putting down a research foundation helps alert you if you go off on a divergent path.
- You’ll never find a better tool for inserting foreshadowing than a nonfiction book outline.
- If a topic included on your list proves a waste of time, you can eliminate it without starting from scratch.
- Having an outline to count on for structure does a great job of keeping your book’s pacing uniform.
- Writers who use outlines swear they suffer fewer episodes of writer’s block.
8 Tips for Making Sure You Don’t Sabotage Yourself
- Put on your Sherlock Holmes hat and research the market to see what’s been written on the topic you plan to address.
- Decide whether it makes more sense to write your book from a first- or third-person perspective.
- Imagine your ideal reader and keep that image in your mind as you outline.
- Resist the impulse to give your work a title. It will emerge from the fray.
- Don’t think you have to produce a 100,000-word book. The average length of today’s non-fiction book is between 25,000 and 60,000 words.
- It’s okay to come up with chapter titles as you progress with your outline as long as you keep them fluid.
- Don’t be afraid to do twice as much research as your project demands. It’s better to have every base covered.
- Set reasonable deadlines for yourself but be forgiving. Some authors spend years on a manuscript—not necessarily consecutive ones, either.
Will you fall in love with the art of the nonfiction book outline? That depends upon how you fared, but whether you intend to self-publish or the next item on your list is finding a publisher or literary agent, even former outline haters come to appreciate this amazing tool.
And if you don’t intend to stop with a single book, you may just declare the outline to be indispensable as you wonder how you would have managed without it!