How to Write a Book Outline

How to Outline a Nonfiction Book in 5 Steps

9 Aug 2021 Nonfiction

There’s no way around it. You need a book outline if you’re writing nonfiction.

For a novel, if you’re a Pantser (one who writes by the seat of your pants—like I do) as opposed to an Outliner, you can get away with having a rough idea where you’re going and how to get there.

But for nonfiction, a book outline is non-negotiable.

Potential agents and publishers’ acquisitions editors require it in a proposal. They want to know you know where you’re going, chapter by chapter.

Over the past nearly 50 years, I’ve written 200 books, 21 of them New York Times bestsellers—a third of them nonfiction. I’ve come to appreciate the discipline of outlining, though that doesn’t work for me with fiction.

I’ve developed an easy-to-use book outline process I believe will help you organize your manuscript.

But first, a word about your topic…

Don’t make the mistake of trying to make a book of something that could—and should—be covered in an article or blog post.

You need a topic worthy of a book. Can it bear at least 12 chapters?

What is a Book Outline?

If you’ve forgotten the basics of classic outlining or have never felt comfortable with the concept, you can still manage this. Your book outline must serve you, not the other way around.

You don’t have to think in terms of 20+ pages of Roman numerals and capital and lowercase letters followed by Arabic numerals—unless that best serves your project. For me a bullet point list of sentences that synopsize my idea works fine.

Don’t even call it an outline if that offends your sensibilities. But fashion some sort of a document that provides direction and structure—which will also serve as a safety net to keep you on track.

A Winning Strategy for Outlining a Book

If you lose interest in your manuscript somewhere in what I call the Marathon of the Middle, you likely didn’t begin with enough ideas. A book outline will reveal such a weakness in advance. You want confidence your structure will carry you through to the end.

I recommend the novel structure illustration below for fiction, but with only slight adaptations it can work for nonfiction as well.

The same structure can turn mediocre nonfiction to something special. Arrange your points and evidence to set up a huge payoff, then make sure to deliver.

How to Write a Book Outline

If you’re writing a memoir, an autobiography, or a biography, you or your biographical subject becomes the main character. Craft a sequence of life events like a novel, and watch the true story come to life.

But even if you’re writing a straightforward how-to or self-help book, stay as close to this structure as possible.

Make promises early, triggering readers to anticipate fresh ideas, secrets, inside information—something major that will thrill them with the finished product.

While you may not have as much action or dialogue or character development as your novelist counterpart, your crises and tension can come from showing where people have failed before and how you’re going to ensure your readers will succeed.

You can even make a how-to project look impossible until you pay off that setup with your unique solution.

How to Outline a Book in 5 Steps

Always view your outline as fluid. You can expand or condense it as you go, and of course move things around.

Your outline should answer:

  • What’s my ultimate goal—my message?
  • About what am I trying to convince, inform, educate, entertain, or move my readership?
  • What progression sequence, chapter by chapter, best serves my purpose?

Begin with a one-page road map that gives you a bird’s eye view of what you intend your book to become.

What to include:

1. Your Message in One Sentence

This can also serve as your Elevator Pitch—what you’d share with a publishing professional between the time you meet him on the elevator and the time he gets off.

Think big. This is not your book, but the idea behind it.

What message can you communicate with the potential to change lives? It should be one you’re passionate about, because it changed your life.

People love to be educated and entertained, but they never forget if you move them emotionally.

I wrote As You Leave Home: Parting Thoughts from a Loving Parent to our eldest son when he left home for college.

My elevator pitch: “I want to express my unconditional love for my child as he leaves the nest.”

Gift books for grads are a dime a dozen, so what made mine stand out and be excerpted in the in-flight magazines of United and American Airlines, and land a guest spot on James Dobson’s Focus on the Family radio program?

Why did this book resonate with tens of thousands of parents facing the same season?

The emotional nature of the message.

By declaring my love for my son, I connected with the hearts of parents during this same bittersweet season.

Without contriving, by letting it bubble up through true passion, aim for the heart.

2. Your Target Readership

Resist the temptation to say it’s for everyone. We all like to think our message is for both genders and all ages, but that’s unrealistic and viewed as naïve by agents and publishers.

Three of the bestselling nonfiction books of all time eventually landed in the everyone category but were originally aimed at specific readerships:

  • How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie, released in 1936, has sold more than 30 million copies and still sells roughly a quarter million a year. Target: business people.
  • The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey, released in 1989, and has sold more than 25 million copies in 40 languages. Target: business people.
  • Written as the sequel to The Purpose Driven Church, The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren, released in 2002, has sold more than 50 million copies in 85 languages. Target: adult Christians.

One way to determine your target readership is to imagine a single reader.

  • What’s their problem (felt need)?
  • What takeaway value can you offer?
  • What’s the most compelling approach you can use to reach them?

I used to imagine my mother as my target reader when she was in the demographic most likely to buy inspirational books. If I could make sense to her, I’d hit the mark.

If you’re still fuzzy on your readership, look in the mirror. Write the book you’d read.

And, be specific. If your book is about your life as a veterinary surgeon, its primary target would be aspiring vets, then practicing vets, and finally animal lovers.

Research the numbers of people who populate these categories so you can give agents and publishers an idea of the potential market.

3. How You’ll Convey Your Message

How to Write a Book Outline

Imagine you’ve confided to two friends about a personal problem.

The first says, “Here’s what you need to do…”

The second drapes an arm around your shoulder and says, “I was in your place once. Let me tell you what I learned and how I got out of it.”

Which are you more likely to listen to?

I call that second approach the Come-Alongside Method. It avoids preachiness and allows readers to get and apply the point on their own.

A story well told drives home a point much more powerfully than narrative summary.

Think reader first.

4. A One-Sentence Synopsis of Each Chapter

Think in stages, so your chapters flow logically.

Begin with a promise—a setup you’ll pay off in the end.

For example, with a how-to topic like Time Management, your first few chapters should dangle a carrot, either with a story about a chronic time waster who became a consummate success, or by simply implying, Stick with me and you’ll be a time management pro by the time you finish this book.

Then list chapters that:

  • cover the background of your topic
  • analyze current theories and opinions
  • review case histories
  • present innovations and experiments
  • feature interviews with experts

Now summarize your chapters to help divide your research into categories.

Example Chapters:

  • One: In Time, You Can Be a Pro
  • Two: Time Management Since Bible Times
  • Three: What the Experts Say
  • Four: Technology and Time Management

5. Your Research and Stories

How to Write a Book Outline

Getting every fact right adds polish to your finished product.

Even a small mistake due to a lack of research can cause your reader to lose confidence—and interest—in your book.

Research Tips

Essential tools:

  • Atlases and World Almanacs to confirm geography and cultural norms.
  • Online Encyclopedias.
  • YouTube and online search engines can yield tens of thousands of results. (Just be careful to avoid getting drawn into endless clickbait videos)
  • A Thesaurus, but not to find the most exotic word. Look for that normal word on the tip of your tongue.
  • In-person, online, or even email interviews with experts. People love to talk about their work, and often such lead to more anecdotes to support your message.

When choosing anecdotes, remember:

  • A memoir, autobiography, or biography doesn’t need to be in chronological order. Sequence your stories to best serve your theme.
  • For how-to and self-help, include only stories that support your points.

Readers love stories.

If you don’t have a story to support a point, get creative! Feel free to invent stories, but always clearly differentiate between which are true and which are imagined.

If you begin a story, “A friend of mine…,” the reader will assume it’s true.

If you begin with something like, “Consider a mother of preschoolers…,” the reader understands you’re suggesting a scenario.

Now expand each chapter summary into a synopsis of a few sentences.

Under each, list the stories you’ll use and tell how each supports your theme and message

Next, for self-help, psychology, business, or other non-character driven nonfiction books: examine the primary message of each chapter. Note whether it meets the needs of your readers.

For chapters in memoirs, biographies, historical fiction, or any other character-driven nonfiction, examine:

  • Your POV character
  • What’s happening
  • When it’s happening
  • Where it’s happening
  • Its contribution to your main character’s terrible trouble

You Can Do It

Outlining a book is crucial to your success. Carefully follow the steps above to give you the structure you need to write the nonfiction book you’ve always dreamed of writing.

Click here for additional resources, like help with writing your memoir, a devotional, or my start-to-finish book writing process.