There’s something about writing a book outline that doesn’t appeal to many authors or would-be authors, but why?
Having a polished finished product of any type often requires creating a first draft — it’s one of the best ways to spot inconsistencies before they become a problem and require a great deal of rework.
Writing a book outline is no different as it offers you a chance to fully think through your ideas and be intentional with the information that you’d like to share.
Think of a book outline not as a blueprint that must define the final product, but rather as a napkin sketch that allows you to capture the main ideas that are most important to you and your readers.
After writing more than 80 books, you might think I could skip the outline stage completely and simply start sharing my thoughts.
What I’ve found is that creating even a rough outline first helps me organize my ideas and pull together takeaways for my audience.
Whether you’re a first-time author or simply looking for ways to improve the flow and continuity of your writing, here’s why you should always be using 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.
Some longer articles or blog posts also use an outline, but outlines are crucial for anyone writing a book.
Once you have completed a few outlines yourself, you’ll find that there are certain aspects or ways of outlining your 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 ideas.
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.
Still having trouble getting started? I had a hard time starting out, too — so I created this easy-to-use book outline template that will help you walk through getting your ideas down for posterity.
Everyone uses different writing tools today, so I’ve provided my free book outline template in a variety of different platforms. Grab one and let’s keep walking through the basics of writing your book outline!
I didn’t want you to have to work through the challenges that I’ve had with book templates, so I’ve created one that will help you get started. This template was created over a process of trial and error as I was writing my library of books — over several decades. Why start from scratch when you can utilize a tested book outline template that you can customize to meet your unique needs?
When you’re writing in Microsoft Word, you’re generally creating a piece of content that can be easily shared with collaborators — and the world. This book outline template lets you get started as soon as you’ve completed your download.
Google Docs is a free, online tool that allows for easy collaboration (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 into a Microsoft Word version that can be opened in that platform and edited or read.
Above all else, outlining your book should be a flexible process. The goal is not to tie you down to creating in exactly the order or format that fits your outline.
Instead, outlining gives you the flexibility you need to shift items around as your project develops.
Outlining a nonfiction book is slightly different than a fiction project, as you’ll need to start with creating a compelling reason for your audience to accept what you are sharing.
That means painting the picture of yourself as an expert in your specific field — even if you’re a self-proclaimed expert! If you’re writing the book from a place of learning alongside the reader, let them know upfront!
That won’t stop an interested party from going on the journey with you, and may even serve to make your writing more approachable.
Honesty is always best, as you never know who will be the ultimate consumer of the content that you create.
Few writers are able to sit down and magically churn out a bestseller without some type of writing tool such as a book outline.
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.
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.
In order to be successful, your book outline should share more than a few simple sentences on a page. Depending on the length of your book, you may end up with several hundred (or even thousand!) words scoped out before you’re happy with the result and ready to dig into the writing process.
You can start by asking yourself some basic questions about your book, starting with crafting the premise for the project.
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.
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 upfront: 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.
I think of this as the PowerPoint of writing — what are the key points and how do they relate back to the whole? Don’t stop yourself from incorporating visual elements into your book outline if that is what works for you.
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.
There are no limits: authors can use a combination of any of the above or create their own outline ideas!
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.
Nonfiction book outlines tend to be less character-oriented and more fact-based than a fiction book outline.
The templates that I’ve provided for you here are more focused towards nonfiction writing, but they can certainly be adapted for other uses. Nonfiction book outlines are a giant to-do list of all the wisdom and learnings that you have to share and provide you with a way to organize your anecdotes, facts, and figures and more.
Downloading my book outline worksheet provides you with the basic framework for success as you prepare to write your next novel by encouraging you to brainstorm all the different things that you want to share.
A bonus aspect 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.
Plus, you can use this worksheet as a professional start to sharing your work with others and getting 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.
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