How to Outline a Nonfiction Book

How to Outline a Nonfiction Book
I wrote my first nonfiction book quite unexpectedly. I had been writing how-to articles and discovered a need from some of my readers to incorporate a lot of my articles into a book. The size of the project, for someone accustomed to writing articles, was unnerving. I found it difficult to imagine how I would fill up the three hundred pages I had promised and even more difficult to think how I could organize all that.

Don’t try to create a perfect outline all in one step. Break the project into smaller steps. You will probably return to many of the steps repeatedly before you have a perfect outline.

First, make sure you know exactly what your book is about. If the topic is too vague, the Civil War, for example, break it down into something more focused. Write your topic at the top of your paper.

Example: This is a homeschooling book for parents who feel unequal to the task.

Notice that this sentence gives the general topic—homeschooling—and specifies an audience—scared parents. This focuses the book, since it now has to include elements you don’t include in traditional homeschooling books. This was the topic of my first book. Here are some other one sentence summaries:

This book is about how to become popular in high school without sacrificing your values.
This book is about raising children with behavioral challenges.
This book is about how the Revolutionary War affected the wives of the soldiers.

Keep this sentence in mind at all times. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself wandering away from your topic or your audience.

Next, write each topic that comes to mind for your book. Some of them won’t be big enough for an entire chapter, but that’s fine. You can tuck them into another chapter later on. You’re just freethinking at the moment, but once you get going, you will probably find yourself working more systematically. If you’re stuck, look at the table of contents for similar books to see what topics they cover and what is missing that you think belongs. This will stimulate your thinking. However, don’t duplicate those books. If yours is just like theirs, there isn’t a need for your book.

Once you have a long list of topics, begin putting them into an order that makes sense. Think logically about what readers must know first. Outline the way they might do what you’re teaching or what they have to know to understand or apply material you’ll cover later. Your book is like a course in school—orderly and logical.

If you find this difficult, put each topic on a file card. For me, this was easier than working on the computer. I spread them out on the floor and began shuffling until I had an order that made sense.

Now decide what the actual chapters will be. Some of the items on your list will only be a subtopic in the chapter. If you’re working on file cards, mark the chapters; if on a computer, highlight them. Place the subtopics in order below each chapter card.

Now you have a detailed outline of your book. Next week, we’ll learn how to use this list to begin creating a book.

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