They say that the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. And when you’re writing a book, the first step is simple: creating an outline.
Even if you already know how to write a book outline, you may not know how to do so for a nonfiction book. And without a good book outline, your great idea may never see the light of the day.
Ready to complete a book outline for your nonfiction book? Keep reading to discover everything you need to know.
What is a book outline?
A book outline is any kind of document that helps you plan for writing your book. There are different ways to create a book outline, but planning most of your details out ahead of time can really help with your writing process.
Many writers think that the outline process is limited to works of fiction. However, you might be surprised by how helpful a book outline can be when it comes to narrative nonfiction. Essentially, a good outline transforms a “brain dump” of ideas into an organized plan for your upcoming book.
Do you need to outline a nonfiction book?
It’s important to outline your nonfiction book before you begin writing. While your outline may not necessarily cover the entire book, it serves as a foundation to help you get started.
Nonfiction writers benefit from this process just as well as fiction writers do because a book outline serves as a roadmap for the entire book. Instead of just winging it when you get past the first chapter, a nonfiction book’s outline helps you have a game plan for what you want to include in each chapter. In this way, you can give yourself a better and more productive writing session each time.
Still on the fence about whether nonfiction book writing requires an outline? Let’s take a closer look at some of the many ways that an outline can help with your writing and editing process and transform that “brain dump” into ideas that’ll win your reader over.
The benefits of a good outline to the writing process
For writers, perhaps the biggest benefit of an outline is that it can save time. When you outline a nonfiction book, you don’t have to worry about what’ll happen next since you already planned it out.
It’s useful to outline nonfiction books because you now have proper milestones to aim for in your writing. Focusing on those milestones as you write can enhance your productivity—which is especially important if you don’t have a lot of time to write in the first place!
Additionally, nonfiction books usually require more research than their fiction counterparts. Creating an outline ahead of time can help you plan your initial research and, as you write more, identify areas that you need to look more into.
When you outline a nonfiction book, you probably won’t completely eliminate writer’s block. But you can greatly minimize it because with the book’s outline in hand, you don’t have to stress about what comes next. When you know what comes next, you just have to worry about how to make it happen.
While nonfiction structure doesn’t lend itself to tangents as much as fiction structure, it’s still possible to wander off topic when you don’t have more than a basic idea of what you’re doing. With a completed book outline, though, you can keep the narrative focused, driven, and tight.
Speaking of “focused,” an outline can help you properly limit the scope of your book. Many nonfiction topics span decades, if not centuries, and this is too much for a single volume to cover. An outline helps you figure out how much of a topic you intend to cover and exactly where you want to end. An outline can also help you determine if you wish to create any follow-up books to further explore the current topic in more detail.
Wondering how to get started? This guide will walk you through different outline techniques you can use. These strategies work well for those who self publish, as well as those hoping to win over traditional publishers.
The different ways to create a nonfiction outline
It’s an open secret that writing nonfiction is different from writing fiction. Accordingly, you may wish to follow a different outline structure or even take dramatically different methods to outline your first draft. To help you get started, we’ve rounded up a few different ways to help you get started.
Creating a mind map
One popular outlining method is known as the mind map. Chances are that you practiced this technique back in school, though your teachers may have called it something different. For example, many students use the following technique to draw bubbles onto paper or onto a whiteboard. For this reason, it’s sometimes referred to as a “bubble map.”
Begin with a core topic—in this case, the topic of your book. For a physical mind map (as opposed to a digital one), you’d need to draw this core topic in a circle on a piece of paper or another physical surface. Let’s say that you are writing about an unsolved mystery… in this case, you’ll write the name of the mystery inside the first circle.
Next, try to think about the different main ideas your book will touch on. Using our mystery example, this might include things like events surrounding the investigation, key figures in the victim’s life, key law enforcement figures in the case, and so on. Draw each event, key figure, and other important ideas in their own circles and then connect those circles back to the first circle using a line.
Next, turn your attention to all those new circles. You now need to add and connect as many supporting details as you can think of. So, if one of your circles has the name of a person connected to the case, you might put facts about how he got involved, the role he played in the case, and important quotes in their own circles and connect those back to the person’s name with a line.
Eventually, your finished mind map will have fully fleshed out the book’s main idea, allowing you to proceed with writing. Visually, the mind map probably looks like a series of circles all connected to the original circle via different lines. Because this mind map structure is very fluid, you can always come back and add more details to the outline as you think of them.
Creating a chapter outline
If you already have a good idea about some of what will be in your book, you can create a chapter outline instead.
Start by creating a table of contents.
With the table of contents in hand, you then flesh out what you plan to include in the first chapter, the next chapter, and all sub chapters afterward.
Some writers use this technique as a secondary outline process because they feel they can’t create a table of contents until they use another technique to outline each main point of their book.
If you’re a very visual learner or writer, you may want to explore other outline techniques to help with your nonfiction writing.
For example, some writers create a kind of visual storyboard for what happens in each chapter. Other writers like to use sticky notes to help them outline their first draft. The obvious advantage of sticky notes is that you can easily move them around (like if you need to make outline changes to help with the chronological structure of the book).
What are the differences between fiction and nonfiction outlines?
The primary difference between outlines for fiction and outlines for nonfiction is that nonfiction must abide more by actual facts and research. Because of this, some of the simpler outline techniques that work well for fiction writing don’t work well for nonfiction writing.
For example, many successful authors of fiction swear by the “one-page outline” method. This is a technique where you focus the entirety of the book around the emotional beats and motivations of your characters that will compel your reader.
With nonfiction, you can’t create emotional beats and motivations whole cloth, so you need a technique an outline technique that favors additional detail so you can better avoid writer’s block.
The same holds true for other popular fiction writing outline techniques. The “3 C’s” outline method asks you to develop the “contract” (in this case, what the story offers to readers), “crucible” (what’s at stake), and “clock” (how much time is left to resolve the drama). When you write about real people and real events, you can’t manufacture drama the way the “3 C’s” method requires of your writing.
This is especially true of the “snowflake method” of writing outlines. This outline strategy teaches you how to create a conflict to build your story around and then create the characters and main points necessary to bring that conflict to life. It’s a simple strategy that works well for expanding on main points, but it doesn’t work well for nonfiction writers who can create neither fictional characters or fictional conflicts to keep readers interested.
What should a nonfiction book outline include?
A nonfiction book outline should include your core ideas, the purpose of your book, and the overall ideas that give the book structure. Without a good outline, the best non fiction books may be reduced to nothing more than a working title and a blank page.
Below, we have a breakdown of the different steps you can take to outline your own non fiction book. This can help you start writing and flesh out much of your structure beyond the main idea.
Keep in mind, though, that no two nonfiction writers are going to follow the exact same process. Once you figure out which outline techniques help you to write, and write quickly, then you’ll know what you need to do to have your book written in no time.
The 7 steps to outline a nonfiction novel
Remember that you can sketch out the core of this information using different strategies before you start writing. You may rely on mind maps, chapter outlines, or visual outlines. As long as you have the core info, you can create an effective outline that helps you create a text that will satisfy readers while luring in more potential readers to see what you have to say.
1. Write a simple idea
Your first step is to write out the core idea of your book. To keep things simple and precise, you might challenge yourself to present this core idea in three sentences (if you’re ambitious, you can try to present it in one sentence).
It may sound outlandish to begin an outline of a large nonfiction text in as little as a single sentence. However, this can keep you focused and eventually even help with your book marketing. In short, as long as you can quickly explain your idea in just a few sentences, you can convince more readers to give your book a shot.
2. Figure out the purpose of your book
As we noted before, you can’t control the exact characters and conflicts that your book is going to cover. But you still need to figure out how to cover those things if you’re going to figure out the purpose of your book.
For example, let’s say that you’re writing about an unsolved murder from years ago. You probably have a good idea of your target audience (in this case, true crime lovers). But how are you going to write this narrative? Are you trying to help solve the murder, or maybe you want to raise awareness? Maybe you just want to shine a spotlight on some of the unsung heroes that originally investigated the crime?
There is no “wrong” purpose of your book. But since the purpose will inform your different ideas and chapters, it’s important to have a firm purpose in mind when you start to outline a book.
3. Select your book structure
Next, you need to decide on the structure of your text. This can help you outline a book and is often related to the purpose you have chosen for the story.
For example, if you wanted to help solve a problem through your writing, then the book will naturally follow a problem/solution structure. If you’re more interested in walking us through the history of what happened, you may prefer a chronological structure instead. Depending on the nature of your topic, you might have a compare/contrast structure (for example, you might create a book comparing the presidencies of George Washington and John Adams).
No matter the structure you choose, having that structure in mind will help you as you write. And you’ll have a better idea of how to proceed when you get further into the outline.
4. Use an outline template to start your outline
While it’s not strictly required, we recommend you find (or create) a book outline template. You can find many templates that are compatible with Google Docs. Because Google Docs saves your work to the cloud, it’s a great way for you to outline and write wherever you go—at home, at the office, etc.
The core purpose of using a free book outline template is the same core purpose of using an outline in the first place: to save time. Every minute you save on the outline is another minute you can write the story you’ve been wanting to tell.
5. Turn primary points into book chapters
By now, you should have an idea of the different content you want to include for your readers. Now, it’s time to start organizing these ideas, chapter by chapter.
On the most basic level, this means determining how many chapters you’ll have. Because the number of chapters determines how long your book will be, this is incredibly important for you to know!
Next, look back at other ways you might have organized your ideas. For example, do you have different ideas you have organized into different bullet points? It’s time to organize those bullet points and figure out which chapter number each of the points will go into.
This is the perfect stage to determine what your chapter titles will be. Even when you’re writing nonfiction, there is room in your writing process to add dramatic and evocative chapter names. You can use this to help captivate your reader as they get further into your story.
6. Determine details for individual chapters
At this point, you probably have a basic idea of what you want to put in each chapter. Now, it’s time to go chapter by chapter and figure out the exact details you want to write for each one.
If you’re not following a chronological structure, this may include re-organizing some of your ideas. For example, you may determine certain events will make more sense to your reader in Chapter 3 if you go ahead and include those details in chapter 1.
Beyond that, though, you can think of this stage as mentally calculating what you want your reader to encounter in each section. This doesn’t have to be in very granular detail (that’s for the next section), but having these details in place now can help you avoid reader confusion in the future.
7. Give each chapter its own outline
Next comes the final step of the outline process: giving each chapter its own outline.
This is where you start planning the really fine details of what you want to include in your chapters. You’ll want to know how chapters begin, how they end, and everything in between.
It may sound a bit tedious, but this is how to effectively plot every aspect of your book. You’ll get stronger reader engagement from what you write and have an easier time with each chapter once you begin writing.
Great books start with great outlines
Now, you know how to create a nonfiction outline. Next comes the hard part: sitting down and writing it all out!
With these tips, you should have an easier time planning your next book. Because good outlines lead to good stories, this is also the first step in wowing a reader and leaving them wanting more.