Outlining your Non-Fiction Book – the ultimate guide

Outlining your non-fiction book doesn’t have to be difficult – in fact, with a simple strategy, it can actually be quite straightforward. So instead of putting it off, follow this ultimate guide and you’ll soon have your outline done and dusted, ready to start your first draft more confidently than ever before.

Why bother outlining your non-fiction book?

One of the things I love about the TV show Grand Designs is the journey people go on when taking on a self-build project. Not only does the presenter, Kevin McCloud, delight in people’s initial enthusiasm, he’s positively gleeful when they give him their suggested completion date.

Fast forward to several months or even years later, and it’s a different story. Kevin sits in their beautiful new home and asks the question, “So how much did you spend in the end?” Cue nervous giggles and shakes of the head as couples sheepishly admit they’ve gone over budget and it’s taken them far longer than they ever imagined. 

Yet despite all the setbacks they’ve had, almost every couple is thrilled with the outcome. It’s the house they’ve dreamed of. And the reason? A clear plan. Almost all of them have architects’ drawings to work from. And while they may have changed things along the way, success happens by following this to the letter. 

It’s the same for your book. The equivalent of an architect’s plan is your book outline. Something you can follow to ensure you’re happy with the outcome. Instead of a house you’ve always dreamed of owning, it’s a book you’ve always dreamed of writing. 

So how do you go about it? Here are 5 steps for outlining your non-fiction book from scratch – and no, I won’t turn into Kevin and raise my eyes sceptically at your decisions…

5 steps for outlining your non-fiction book

Now, I’m sharing with you an outlining process that has worked for me. It’s enabled me to write six books in just over six years. But, as with anything, you can take from it what works for you. If you want to follow it to the letter, great. If you want to dip in and out of this model, you can do that too. 

Let’s dive in.

Step 1: Subheadings

If you’ve read the first part of this blog series, ‘How to plan your non-fiction book in 5 easy steps’, you’ve got your list of ideas on either a Trello board or a sheet of paper. Each list has a chapter heading, taking your reader on their journey from start to finish. Now it’s time to look at each list in turn.

Take your first list and look at all the content you’ve brain dumped into it. Now break this list down into sections. Some of your ideas will be big enough to be sections on their own. Some may be smaller, so see whether any of those ideas could logically be grouped together into a section under a common title.

Each section is going to need a subheading. Sometimes these subheadings can be one word – like in this section you’re reading. Or you can use questions to create subheadings too – this is often a useful method. Why? Because you can use a commonly asked question and then answer it in the section underneath. I tend to use a mixture of both.

So why not have a go? Take a look at your first list and start developing your subheadings. Repeat the process for each of your chapter lists, finding the subheadings that make sense to you. Again, these can be changed during the writing/editing process, but just go with what feels right for now.

Step 2: Expanding your sections

Now you’ve got your subheadings sorted, it’s time to open up a document that will become your shitty first draft. Exciting! I use Google Docs, so I can access my manuscript wherever I am. You’ll need either your Trello board on hand or your notebook beside you.

Open up your document. Your first page will be your introduction, but as you’re not writing that until the end, you can simply type ‘Introduction’ and then add in a section break to start a new page.

Take your first list and your first chapter heading. Type that at the top of the page. Then look at your subheadings. Write each subheading on the page until they look like a list.

Now go to the first subheading and create some bullet points under it of things you know you’re going to include in that section. These might be ideas from your plan or just points you know from your knowledge and expertise. Include as many bullet points as you need under that first subheading and then move on to the next one.

Remember! When outlining your non-fiction book, you only need a few bullet points that could then be turned into paragraphs/full sentences during the first draft. It really doesn’t need to be any more detailed than that.

Step 3: Adding in the extras

Now’s the time to look at each of your outlined chapters and add in anything else you want to include, such as:

  • Case studies

  • Contributor sections

  • Anecdotes/personal stories

  • Research that needs to be done

Remember not to get bogged down in the details here. Keep it simple. When outlining your non-fiction book, just jot down what needs to happen and move on. Imagine these as notes for your future self. Only use case studies/anecdotes that are helpful to the reader. If they don’t add anything to the reader’s experience, leave them out.

Step 4: Summaries and action steps

You might want to include these two features in your book: summaries and action steps. They’re not essential and may not be relevant for your book, but they’re worth considering. So what are they and how can they help your book’s structure?

  • Summaries

At the end of chapters, it’s useful to have a summary for the reader. Essentially, it’s a quick overview of what they’ve just read, including the most pertinent bits that are worth repeating. 

  • Action steps

Action steps are quick strategies they can take away from the experience and try out in real life. Again, this might not be relevant for your book, but you may find them a useful way to round up the chapter and support your reader with their transformation.

Step 5: Head back to your chapter introduction

Finally, it’s time to consider the introduction to each chapter. Once you’ve done the outline for it, head back to the start of the chapter and think about what you might want to include in the introduction. A good place to start is establishing why that chapter is important to the reader and managing their expectations.

Let them know what’s going to feature in this chapter and what they can hope to learn. If you’re still stuck with this bit, leave it. Come back to introductions when the rest of your first draft is complete.

Once you’ve completed the entire book outline, you can consider the introduction to the whole book. You’ll know what you’re introducing now!

Summary

Outlining your non-fiction book takes the pressure off writing your first draft. It also gives you confidence. Your book takes shape before your eyes and you finally get that little burst of excitement as your ideas flow.

No, it’s not always easy. But it’s so much better than trying to make it up as you go along. You’ll only get so far if you try that, particularly if it’s your first book.

Take it one chapter at a time. One subheading at a time. One bullet point at a time. And sooner or later your outline is complete and you’re fully prepared to tackle the shitty first draft.

For further support on outlining your non-fiction book, you can buy my latest book, Dare to Write, or you can contact me to work 1:1, so we can build your plan and outline together.

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