One question that many new and aspiring authors have is “Should I outline my book or just go with the flow?” To answer this question — and take my bias out of the answer — I did a little research on what those in the biz — authors and those who help authors alike — think about whether or not you should outline your nonfiction book.
What is a book outline?
First, I want to make sure we’re on the same page when it comes to terminology. The Oxford Dictionary defines “outline” this way: “a general description or plan giving the essential features of something but not the detail.”
The important point to pull from that definition, when it comes to outlining your nonfiction book, is “plan.” An outline is an author’s plan for his or her book. And plans can change as you implement them.
For example, I had a very clear outline for Public Speaking Super Powers. I even published it on my website. However, as I wrote the book, I realized there was a very important chapter missing – how to overcome the fear of speaking – and so my outline (my plan) changed.
“The most important thing to remember when outlining a book is that you should remain flexible,” says Sam Kerns, author of How to Outline a Nonfiction Book. “In other words, don’t create a book outline and then think you have to stick with it no matter what. I’ve often rearranged, added to, or even deleted sections of my book outlines in order to write a better book.”
How Do You Outline Your Nonfiction Book?
When I was in school, I learned how to outline in a very specific way:
This style of outlining worked well for writing papers for my class projects. And it can work well for some nonfiction books. However, it is not the only game in town when it comes to outlining. There are many ways you can outline your nonfiction book in a meaningful way.
- You can think of our book in Chapters, Sections, or even Steps
- You can organize your book using a timeline
- You can outline your book using sticky notes
The main point of the outline exercise is to logically organize your thoughts about what you want to include. Whichever outlining process or format works for you is the way you should go. I’ve experimented with a variety of outlining methodologies and have found a few that work best for me, depending on the type of book I’m writing. So try different styles of outlining out and find the one or ones that work best for you.
Remember, “An outline is the skeleton of your book,” says Tom Corson-Knowles, founder of TCK Publishing. “Once you put all the bones in place, you have a solid framework for adding your ideas, thoughts, stories, anecdotes, facts, and figures. Like a skeleton, every bone of your book fits into a certain location. When it’s in the right spot, you’ll know.”
5 Reasons Why You Should Outline Your Nonfiction Book
Now that you know what an outline is and have an idea of how you might outline your nonfiction book, here are the reasons why you should go through the process of outlining before you sit down to write.
1. Vanquish the Mind Goblin of Writer’s Block!
When you have a roadmap and have planned how you will get from point A to point B, you are much less likely to get lost on your way to your destination. Your outline is your book’s roadmap. Remember, you don’t need to write your book in the same order it will be published in. If you’re working on Chapter 1 and get stuck, move on to another chapter in your book! Because you have an outline, you know what each chapter is going to cover, so this is a simple and easy way to beat writer’s block.
2. Write Faster
You can write much faster if you know where you’re going. One of my mentors likes to say, “An outline well written is a book half-done.” That’s because you do much of the structuring work when you outline your nonfiction book. Once that’s done, it is simply a matter of filling in the holes, so to speak. You know what content needs to go where, you just need to write and edit it so that it flows well. With a solid outline complete, you can easily write a nonfiction book in 30 writing days or less.
3. Cut Down on Editing Time by Writing More Coherently
For first-time authors, one of the most painful, time-consuming, and possibly expensive processes is the first edit. If you haven’t outlined your book in advance, there is a strong possibility that it will be a hot mess and need some re-organizational work. And for that, you need to hire a Substantive (sometimes called Developmental) Editor to go through your prose with a fine-tooth comb and a forest-level vision. This type of editing is the most expensive.
However, if you outlined your book first, your manuscript may be fairly clean and can be a relative breeze to edit! Think of the time and money you can save by outlining your book first!
4. You’ll Spot Missing Pieces More Quickly
Remember my story about the missing piece in Public Speaking Super Powers I mentioned earlier in this article? Well, if I hadn’t outlined my book first, I may not have discovered I was missing information until I started editing the manuscript. Then it would have taken me more time and effort to fit it in. Or, I may not have noticed it at all! And the book would have been much less effective.
However, because I did have an outline, I discovered the missing piece when the manuscript was still incomplete and I was able to fit the new chapter in with ease.
5. Better Master Your Time
Writing a nonfiction book take time. And when you’re busy with your day job or business, your family responsibilities, errands, and more, it can be hard to figure out how to fit writing your book in. Most people don’t have large chunks of time they can dedicate to writing a book. They may only have 15 minutes here and 10 minutes there. Sound familiar?
When you outline your nonfiction book, you can make the most of a 15-minute writing session. Because you know what content and concepts need to go where you can devote your writing time to writing one paragraph at a time. The overall flow of the book is taken care of by the outline.
“In order to write something big, it really helps me to think of the constituent parts,” says Roy Peter Clark, American writer, editor, and teacher of writing. “What are the basic units or elements? What are the chapters? That helps with my research — filling up my chapter files. And it helps with my drafting — writing one chapter at a time.”
When you outline your nonfiction book, you make your writing process easier to manage and easier to fit into the interstitial moments of your life. And because writing your book is easier, you are more likely to finish it, publish it and get it out into the world where it can make a difference. And that’s the whole point, right?