How To Make an Outline for a Book
Writing a book is an invigorating venture. Making your mark on the world, sharing your creativity or expertise, recording history — these are all momentous reasons why many people strive to write a book.
But it can also become arduous at times when thoughts don’t flow, time is limited, doubt creeps in, or inspiration lags. If you’ve felt this way about writing your book, you’re not alone. Most people who dream of writing a book hit a wall at some point — or sadly don’t finish at all.
I have the solution, and it’s a simple one — begin your book by writing a book outline.
You might think that writing a book outline is a daunting task — or even an unnecessary one. But allowing your creative thoughts to flow and seeing where your ideas lead you might be the necessary step to your next best-seller.
As a top-selling author of more than 80 books, I can tell you that knowing how to make an outline for a book has been the cornerstone to my success as a writer.
After writing dozens of books, you might think I could skip the outline stage completely and simply start sharing my thoughts.
What I’ve found instead is that creating even a rough outline first helps me organize my ideas and pull together takeaways for my audience to create a better end product.
So let me help you become an author by getting your book started, written, and published. I’ll show you what a book outline is, why you need one, how to create one, and some helpful templates to streamline the process.
What is a Book Outline?
In its most simple form, a book outline is a set of directions that you’re giving yourself — a roadmap of sorts — that allows you to hone the concepts you wish to present during the process of writing.
Once you’ve completed a few outlines yourself, you’ll find there are certain aspects or ways of outlining ideas that are more successful for you personally, and that’s great. Outlines are meant to give you a kick-start and improve the flow of your thoughts.
Creating a book outline can take a variety of forms, everything from a color-coded Excel sheet to a few scribbled sentences on scraps of paper.
The most successful outlines tend to include at least an introductory or overview paragraph, broad headlines for the content, and a few sentences describing what you would like to cover in each particular chapter.
The goal is not to pre-write your book; instead, you’re simply creating a memory prompt for what you would like to say in particular areas of your book.
Benefits of a Book Outline
Creating an outline for your book provides you with organization and structure that you’ll be able to utilize at the beginning, middle, and end processes of writing your book. By writing an outline first, it will also:
- Help you write quickly
- Allow you to start right off the bat
- Let you avoid writer’s block
- Help you stay motivated
- Be seen as a first draft
A bonus aspect of knowing how to make an outline for a book is that you’re less likely to finish your project and realize that you’ve omitted something crucial — that might require you to rewrite a significant portion of your project.
Want to know a secret benefit or by-product of writing a book outline?
Once you start the process of jotting down your ideas, you may be surprised to realize exactly how knowledgeable you are about a topic.
Getting started on anything as weighty as writing a book can leave you feeling overwhelmed, but getting a clear outline in place can make the task of actually writing your book feel a great deal more achievable.
Types of Book Outlines
You can create an outline for any type of book you want to write, both fiction and nonfiction. Regardless of your subject matter or genre, you’ll need to start by choosing a book topic.
Next, ask yourself some basic questions about your book, starting with crafting the premise for the project:
- Who is the key audience for your book?
- What problem are you solving?
- Are you sharing completely new concepts, or building on the work of others?
- Do you expect to have a resolution of the problem within a single book, or are you writing for a series?
- Have you gathered a list of terms that people tend to use when describing your thoughts and ideas? These synonym lists can help you steer clear of overusing the same language.
- What are some additional topics that you need to research?
- Are there tidbits or other complete books that will be used as references throughout your writing process?
When you’re writing an outline, don’t be afraid to make the outline work for you. Whether that means detailed bullet points that are multiple levels deep or only jotting down a few words to describe each chapter and then going back later to fill in the details.
It’s all about finding a way to use outlining to work with your creative process.
Now that you have the basic foundation laid out, let’s look at how to outline a book that’s either nonfiction or fiction.
Nonfiction Book Outlines
Outlining a nonfiction book is slightly different than a fiction novel, as you’ll need to start with creating a compelling reason for your audience to accept what you’re sharing.
To achieve this, be the thought leader for your audience on the topic in your book. Share your experience and expertise.
And if you’re writing the book from a place of learning alongside the reader, let them know upfront. It may even serve to make your writing more approachable.
Consider these questions when creating your nonfiction outline:
- What information do you want to share in your book?
- Who is your reader: beginner, intermediate or advanced?
- Why does your reader want to know the information in your book?
- What does your reader want to learn by reading your book?
Nonfiction book outlines are fact-based and have a teachable storyline, as opposed to a character-oriented fiction book outline. When you’re making your nonfiction book outline, think about what the purpose of your book is and what message you want to offer.
Determine the structure of your book as well. For instance, is the basis of your book problem-solution, compare and contrast, timeline-based, how-to, or another type of structure?
Identifying this will help you to efficiently create your outline.
As you write your outline, identify the main points of your book and organize them into chapters. Then, add specific details to each chapter, writing down as much information as comes to your mind.
Novel Book Outlines
A novel book is fiction-based. For a fiction novel, many authors prefer to begin with the characters that they’ll be introducing and make extensive notes on their motivations and how they relate to one another.
Another popular fiction outline begins with defining all of the various locations where (or when) a story will be set.
Consider these questions when creating your fiction outline:
- If my antagonist does that, how will my protagonist react?
- How can I get my protagonist out of that?
- Use “What if?” in different scenarios.
And then make sure you include these items in your fiction book outline:
- The who, what, when, where, and why details of your story
- The direction you want your story to take or goals you want to reach
- The plot, primary conflicts, and tensions involving different characters
- The turning points of your story or major scenes
How to Make an Outline for a Book in 5 Steps
Outlining your book should be a flexible process.
The goal is not to tie you down to create the exact order or format that fits your outline. Instead, outlining gives you the flexibility you need to shift items around as your project develops.
Use the following steps to understand how to outline a book. I’ve included tips for each step that will help you complete your outline so that writing your book is a smoother and more successful process.
1. Craft Your Thesis
First, craft your story and its premise. Your premise is the basis of your story and this is where the ideas of your book come to life. Then expand on your thesis to generate new ideas.
Consider answering these questions as you craft your thesis:
- Who is the main protagonist? What is their objective? What are their wants? Will they change over the story?
- What is the situation?
- Is there an opponent?
- What is the central conflict of the book?
- What about the central theme — what are you trying to say?
2. Place Your Setting
Determine the time and place of your book while making sure it appropriately suits your story, characters, plot, and so on.
Get to know your setting well so your book is authentic for the reader. Do research if needed, or if you’re creating your own fictional setting, carefully craft it with detailed descriptions.
Also, steer clear of having an overabundance of different settings to keep your story targeted and make it more enjoyable for your readers to visualize the setting in their minds.
3. Write Your Characters’ Profiles
As you develop your characters, imagine what they look like, how they act and react, what their personalities are like, and what role they play in your book.
Introduce your characters in your outline by writing detailed descriptions of who they are and their backgrounds, interests, and goals.
Develop each character’s backstory and determine where they’ll start and how they’ll change throughout the story.
4. Plan Out Your Plot
Unfold a timeline of events and outline what will happen from beginning to end.
Don’t worry about including all the details, but it’s helpful to answer the who, what, where, when, and why for each major event.
Also, outline how certain events will impact the plot and characters, and ensure there are no gaps in the story.
In your outline, it helps to write out specific scenes when you feel inspired. You can even include dialogue to bring your scenes to life.
Jot down as many ideas as you have when you’re writing your outline. Use the inspiration that comes to you, and don’t hold back.
5. Review Your Outline
Now that your first draft of an outline is done, review it and start to piece sections together. You can also condense ideas and remove any unnecessary thoughts.
Before you start writing, work through any remaining potential problems in your head or on paper. Once you feel you have an outline you can work with, you can begin putting it into action.
Tips for Writing an Outline
There are a variety of ways that authors choose to outline their books. Some like to use a more visual mind map that outlines the spatial relationships between themes and how they tie together.
Others prefer to go the route of defining their synopsis up front: all the various things that your audience should expect to learn in the process of perusing your book.
Yet another option is to create what you might consider a “true” outline or a skeleton of your upcoming book.
There are no limits: Authors can use a combination of any of the above or create their own outline ideas.
Be flexible as you write your outline. Remember, this is just the first step of writing your book.
Ask yourself questions throughout the process, and consider getting ideas from similar books.
If you’re stuck, don’t worry. Just leave blanks and come back.
Types of Book Outline Templates
Want a quick and easy way to make your book outline? Use a template to get started right away.
Everyone uses different writing tools today, so I’ve provided my free book outline templates on a variety of different platforms.
This template was created over a process of trial and error as I was writing my library of books — over several decades.
Grab one and let’s keep walking through the basics of writing your book outline.
Book Outline Template PDF
Using a non-fiction or novel writing template in PDF form is a crisp, appealing way to outline your book. Use my editable book writing template PDF to write your outline on your computer, or print it out to handwrite your notes.
Book Outline Template Microsoft Word
When you write a book template in Microsoft Word, you’re generally creating a piece of content that can be easily shared with collaborators — and the world.
You may also use the same book outline template which can be converted to a Word document after you download it, or you can transfer the information into your Word doc.
Book Outline Template Google Docs
Google Docs is a free, online tool that allows for easy collaboration. It’s perfect when you need someone to read and add comments to a file that you’re still working on.
Added bonus: You can easily export your Google Doc book outline template into a Microsoft Word version that can be opened on that platform and edited or read.
Tips for Using a Template
If the thought of writing with a template that was developed for others doesn’t appeal to you, just keep in mind that a template is just that: one potential way that you can accomplish the task.
That doesn’t mean you can’t modify the template to work for you. A template is an easy guide for when you’re stuck on where to start.
Few writers are able to sit down and magically churn out a bestseller without some type of writing tool such as a book outline.
It’s simply a jump start to success that will help you create lists of topics that you want to research and explore, relevant examples, and lessons you’ve learned in the past.
Downloading my book outline template provides you with the basic framework for success as you prepare to write your next book. It encourages you to brainstorm the plethora of thoughts that you want to share.
Plus, you can use my book outline template as a professional to start sharing your work with others and receive feedback.
Whether that’s a current colleague or a former teacher or mentor, this type of interaction with others can help hone the message of your work and refine the tone you need to use to approach your writing.
Perfect Your Next Book Outline
Knowing how to make an outline for a book sets you up for success as an author.
A book outline provides you with the framework you need for a smoother, more complete writing process, and you can use an outline for any storyline or genre you plan to write.
For even more in-depth tips on how to outline a book, how to choose a book title, overcoming the fears that hold many writers back, making time for writing your book, and knowing exactly what to write about, sign up for my free “5 Steps to Planning and Publishing a Best-Selling Book” webinar today.
About Brian Tracy — Brian is recognized as the top sales training and personal success authority in the world today. He has authored more than 60 books and has produced more than 500 audio and video learning programs on sales, management, business success and personal development, including worldwide bestseller The Psychology of Achievement. Brian's goal is to help you achieve your personal and business goals faster and easier than you ever imagined. You can follow him on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Linkedin and Youtube.