How to Plan Your Non-Fiction Book in 5 Easy Steps

If you have little to no idea how to plan your non-fiction book, you’re not alone. It’s a common problem many aspiring new authors have. You’ve got all that content swirling around in your head, you just don’t know what to do with it. 

To help you, I’ve put together a 2-part blog series, taking you through the initial stages of planning your non-fiction book and then onto outlining it. 

So grab your notebook and biscuits of choice and let’s get started with your big-picture plan.

Why plan your non-fiction book?

Often when people try to write a non-fiction book, they sit down without a plan and just write. Normally, this only gets them so far. In the world of fiction writing, these authors are affectionately known as ‘pantsers’ – flying into the writing process by the seat of their pants, letting their characters lead the way. 

Those who plan meticulously are called ‘plotters’ – they know every detail about every chapter. Surprises are rare. 

I sit somewhere in the middle. Maybe that makes me a ‘plantser’, who knows? With nonfiction writing, having a more detailed plan and outline can be more helpful and give your book a better structure. 

Your big-picture plan and your outline (which we’ll cover in the second part of this blog series) are here to take the overwhelm away. How much you plan is entirely up to you – it’s a personal preference. Hopefully, this will give you the clarity and the confidence to start … and continue. 

Big-picture planning

If you’re anything like me, you’ll have had a non-fiction or business book idea swirling around in your head for a while, months or even years. It’s time to empty your head of all your ideas. I like to think they’ve been percolating like a fine wine, ready to be decanted onto the page.

How you plan your non-fiction book is up to you. I’ve used spider diagrams in notebooks, lists on pieces of flipchart paper and, most recently, a board on Trello – an online collaboration tool that allows you to organise your projects digitally. I’m a very visual learner, so these types of things work well for me. You need to use whatever works for you. 

There are five stages to this process, so let’s look at them in more detail.

Step 1: The Brain Dump

Does exactly what it says on the tin. It’s an opportunity for you to take all your ideas and dump them down onto paper/Trello board. Just go with the flow. 

  • Set a timer for 15–20 minutes – an intense block of time to get your thoughts down.

  • Find a space where you won’t be disturbed and turn off any distractions.

  • Fire up your Trello board or grab your piece of paper and a pen.

  • Start your timer and, in that period of time, write down everything you can possibly think of about your book’s content. 

  • Whatever you do, don’t try to justify or second guess your choices. Just let them flow out. The time to sort them comes later. 

  • Keep writing and writing until the timer goes. You’ll be surprised at the gems you unearth when you really dig deep. 

When the timer goes, sit back and relax. It’s an intense process, but also an immensely satisfying one. Leave your list/board/spider diagram to one side for the moment. Over the next few days, you’ll begin to think of other ideas to add. It’ll be when you’re doing the most unlikely tasks, e.g. taking a shower, walking the dog, plucking your eyebrows. 

This is one of the reasons I’ve started using Trello, as I can add to my board by using the app on my phone when I’m out and about.

Keep adding to your list of ideas for the next few days. You’ll keep adding to it as you outline and write your first draft. Your brain won’t be creative at a time that suits you. So keep your notebook handy and transfer your ideas as they come to you. Again, don’t analyse them. Just jot them down. Some will never get used and that’s fine. This isn’t the time to worry about that.

Step 2: Organisation into groups

You’ve got all these brilliant ideas, but they’re a little haphazard. As you’ve been dumping these ideas down, you’ve probably realised you’re able to see common themes between them. Ways in which you can group some of these ideas together. This is the starting point for your chapter headings. 

If you’ve done your brain dump on a sheet of paper, it’s time to make things pretty. Grab a few different coloured pens or highlighters. Using one colour, start to highlight or circle ideas that could be grouped together under one common topic. Once you’ve found all the ideas that fit together, choose another colour and repeat the process. 

Keep going until you’ve grouped all your ideas in groups of colours. Don’t worry about what these groups are going to be called yet. If you’ve got some that don’t fit into any group, don’t panic. We’ll come onto those in a minute. 

If you’re using Trello, start creating lists of ideas – grouping common ones together in one list and then creating another list for the next group.

Step 3: Group headings 

Things are slowly beginning to take shape now. You’re able to see ideas that come under a common theme. If you’re not using Trello, you’ll need another sheet of paper. 

You’ll need to create lists/columns now. Each column represents one of the colours you’ve used to highlight/circle. On your sheet of paper, write down everything under one colour in one list. Then repeat for all the other colours. So you’ve now got lists of common ideas. 

If you’ve been using Trello all along, you’ll have done this when creating your board.

Now is the time to look at each list. What might be a good title for that particular list? What umbrella name could all the ideas be grouped under? These titles are going to become your working chapter headings. Note the word ‘working’ – nothing is set in stone at this stage; it’s just initial planning. 

Go to each list in turn and think of a name for it. If you’re using Trello, make this the title of each list. If you’re on paper, write down the potential chapter heading at the top of each column. 

Now things are looking a bit tasty. Your chapters are developing in front of your very eyes and a structure begins to take shape.

But what about those pesky ideas that didn’t fit under any category/in any list? Look at them again. Can they go anywhere now you’ve begun sorting your ideas? If not, are they big enough to be chapters on their own? 

If not, it’s time to get brutally honest. Either leave them to one side to look at again once you’re outlining. Or, if you’re brave, strike them off altogether – it’s not as though you can’t add them in at another time during the writing process.

Step 4: Editing the list 

Look at the Trello board/lists you’ve created. It’s time to get out the metaphorical red pen … or the real one, if that works.

From now on we’re going to call these lists your ‘chapters’. Take one chapter at a time and ask yourself these questions:

  • Is this essential to the chapter?

  • Is this idea under the best chapter heading? Does it need to move to another?

  • Have I repeated this idea in another way in any other part of this chapter?

  • Do I want to include this idea? 

  • Does it contribute to the reader’s journey? How?

If there’s anything that doesn’t cut the mustard, cross it out/delete it from your board. If you’re not sure yet, leave it for now and when you’re writing your draft, you may find that it doesn’t quite fit where you expected it to or doesn’t fit at all. 

Step 5: Tying up your loose ends

Once you’ve done the bulk of your non-fiction book plan, you’ll have a few loose ends to tie up. 

  • Your book title

You might have an idea for a book title already, but I would urge you to keep it as a ‘working title’ for the time being. Once you’ve written the book, you’ll be able to look back and decide whether it’s still the right choice. Try not to get bogged down with this decision; it really is just an idea at the moment. You’ll have plenty of other opportunities to work on it. 

  • Your introduction 

It’s often daunting to write the very first word on the very first page of your book. In nonfiction, this is almost always the introduction. You stare at the blinking cursor and wonder what on earth you should write. It’s often the stumbling block for many. 

Well here’s how to make it easier. Write the introduction last. Plan for it last too. How on earth are you supposed to know what you’re introducing if you haven’t written it yet? The same can be said for the small introductions to each chapter. Plan for each one once you’ve planned out the rest of the chapter. 

  • Storytelling and anecdotes 

Stories have been part of the fabric of society for thousands of years. Our brains are wired to tell stories and to listen to them. Nonfiction books need stories to make them entertaining to read.

During the planning stage, simply jot down any stories you wish to use to illustrate any points you’re trying to make. If it’s not a story, it might be a case study from a client you’ve worked with. You don’t need to elaborate and write down the full story/case study at this point, just write down a quick reminder.

If you need more help, read this post about how to use storytelling your nonfiction book.

  • Research 

The amount of research you need for your non-fiction book will vary, depending on your existing knowledge and also the tone of your book. Some authors like to share statistics to back up points they’re making. Others like to cite further research that readers can go away and read.

In the big-picture planning phase, simply write down the research you need to do, rather than worrying about the precise content of it. You just need a quick reminder so that when it comes to outlining and writing the first draft, you’re aware of what needs to be done.

  • Contributors and professionals 

During this initial planning phase, put some thought into who else needs to come on board this non-fiction book journey with you. 

Contributors are often people who are experts in their field. You know you’d love them to write a chapter or a few pages for your book, to add greater depth to your work. Now’s the time to approach them with exactly what you’d like them to do. 

Now is also the time to think about editors, cover designers and proofreaders. These professionals will help your book be the best it can be. But don’t underestimate how busy they are. If you’re looking for more advice on this aspect of your book, read this post about publishing your book.

Summary

You’re ready to begin your big-picture plan! You’ll feel a sense of real excitement as you piece together the first stages of your book’s structure. Do remember this is just an initial plan. 

It’s likely chapters will move around and change once you begin outlining and writing. Avoid spending hours fretting over this big-picture plan. Instead, simply get all your ideas down and put them into what seems like a logical order. 

Once you’ve completed it, it’s time to move on to your outline – where the real fun and games begin. 

If you’d like support with your book plan, contact me and arrange a session together – either the Book Clinic or the VIP day are perfect for you if you’re at this stage. You can also find further support in my book, Dare to Write, available in the shop now or via Amazon.

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