Ask the Editor: How to Outline a Non-Fiction Book

Filed in Ask the Editor by on March 7, 2013 7 Comments

If you asked me to list the three fears I picked up in high school English, they would be diagramming sentences, red ink and outlining. I’ve never gotten past my red ink complex, but I can now see the true value in outlining any writing project before touching fingers to the keyboard. Contractors don’t build houses without blueprints. You can’t write something big (especially a book) and not use an outline; it’s the writer’s blueprint.

The two most popular techniques are the mind map and the chapter-by-chapter outline. You can use them separately, or start with the mind map and expand into the chapter outline.

Mind Mapping TechniqueMind Mapping:

For this exercise, you need a large piece of blank paper and a pen. Draw a circle and write your title or main idea in the middle. From there, add bubbles around your main idea with smaller topics. Keep adding topics that you might want to cover in your book until you can’t think of anymore.

Now step away. Ignore it for a day or two to distance yourself from the information. When you’re ready, go back with a few different colored pens. Do you see topics that are similar enough to be covered in the same chapter? Circle them in the same colored ink. Are there any topics that don’t really fit in with your overall idea? Mark them with a huge “X” in another color.

For some writers this may be enough to keep them on track, but for others this exercise feeds directly into a chapter outline.

Chapter Outline:

Create your outline in a word document so you can easily add and move information. You already know you’re going to start with an Introduction and end with a Conclusion; now you just need the middle section. For natural progression, keep basic ideas toward the front and then move into more advanced topics. The most important information for non-fiction outlines are chapter titles, key points, resources that need to be referenced, people to be interviewed and research required. If you wrote The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (don’t we all wish we did?!), your outline would look something like this:

  1. Habit: Be Proactive
    1. Take initiative. Realize your dreams.
    2. Take responsibility for your choices and their consequences.
  2. Habit: Begin with the End in Mind
    1. Self-discovery: clarifying important character values.
    2. Pinpoint important goals to achieve.
    3. Envision ideal character values for your roles and relationships.
    4. Determine your mission statement.
  3. Habit: Put First Things First
    1. Prioritize.
    2. Plan.
    3. Execute.
    4. Evaluate your effort.
  4. Habit: Think Win-Win
    1. Strive for mutually beneficial solutions or agreements in relationships.
    2. Value and respect people. A win for all is ultimately better, long-term.
  5. Habit: Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood
    1. Listen first.
    2. Listening compels others to reciprocate and keep an open mind.
    3. Listening creates atmosphere of positive problem solving.
  6. Habit: Synergize
    1. Combine strengths of people through positive teamwork.
    2. Teamwork achieves goals no one person could do alone.
  7. Habit: Sharpen the Saw
    1. Balance and renew resources, energy and health.
    2. Creates sustainable, long-term and effective lifestyle.
    3. Emphasis on exercise, prayer and service to society.

If I’ve learned one thing post-high school English class, it’s that outlines aren’t scary. What is scary is a book which has absolutely no pattern, theme, or point. Well, that, and maybe my freshman yearbook photo.

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About the Author ()

Erika Bennett, Editorial Manager for Xulon Press, has been a freelance editor for nearly half a decade. Before joining the Xulon team in 2010, she worked with several first time authors who wanted to test the waters of self-publishing. Her aim is to make sure great books find their way into readers' hands.

Comments (7)

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  1. avatar Rich Price says:

    I have found a great picture to go with the title of my book. I do not know where I initially found it. On another facebook page I believe. How do I know if I have to obtain a photo permission?

  2. avatar Ellen Hart says:

    I’m writing a memoir about my father born 1913. I have documents from a hospital on my father’s adoption and letters from his friends in high school. I want to include these documents and letters––written from 1913 to about 1936–– in my story. Would I need to change names, or since the documents and letters were written at least 77 years ago could I leave the information in?

    Thanks!

  3. avatar Laura Austin says:

    I have been tossing around the idea of writing a book about living with Bipolar Disorder, the struggles it may cause, and how to overcome the obstacles that come with the illness. Do you have any tips? What are the chances that I would be able to self-publish?

    • Hi Laura,

      It sounds like you already have a great foundation set for your idea. Organization of the material and a good flow will be important. You could also include personal anecdotes or if you know other people that struggle with the disorder, you could include their stories as well and maybe balance it out with facts and research. If you do use facts and research, be sure to keep track of your sources as you go since you’d need to include that information in a bibliography at the end of your book. Hope these tips help a bit. Happy New Year!

  4. avatar Mikhaila says:

    I have found this very helpful in the process of writing my book. I think doing even a mind map prior to outlining each chapter works for me!

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