If you want to write the next Glee, why don’t you do what their writers did?
Do you think they created the story on the fly? Do you think they came to work on Monday morning and said, “I wonder what predicament we can throw in this week?” Did you think they had winged it for so many years?
Here’s their secret to writing a story that lasted more than five years with more than thirteen episodes per year.
They created the outline of their stories at the beginning. That’s right. From the first moment bullies slimed Rachel with a Slurpee, the writers knew how the story would end. Rachel would get a starring role on Broadway, win a Tony award, fly back to Ohio, run into a classroom where her boyfriend, Flynn, was teaching, and tell him she was ready to get married.
Of course, you don’t remember seeing that ending. It didn’t happen. The actor who played Flynn died. The writers had to construct a new story ending—but they had a place to start from and points to hit along the way.
If one of the most-watched TV shows in the past decade relied on an outline, shouldn’t you?
The outline gets you started in the right direction. If you discover new research, new stories, and new ideas, you can always change your outline and make your book even better. Your outline is a living, breathing document to help guide you to finish your book.
Why You Must Have an Outline
Did you know there is a secret formula to writing a business book? Once you know the formula, you will be able to write a book fast.
It’s a secret every fast-writing author knows. It’s also a secret your high school English teacher probably taught you. It’s called writing an outline.
I guarantee you will write your book faster if you start by creating a highly detailed outline showing each chapter, each point, each story, and each action you want readers to take, think, and feel.
An outline is the skeleton of your book. Once you put all the bones in place, you have a solid framework for adding your ideas, thoughts, stories, anecdotes, facts, and figures. Like a skeleton, every bone of your book fits into a certain location. When it’s in the right spot, you’ll know. If something is missing or out of place, you’ll know.
If you had a rotten English teacher who made outlines seem boring, I want to reframe your negative thoughts. You might think of your book outline as:
- A map of your next big adventure
- A giant to-do list of things you want to write about
- A business plan, where you own the business and keep all the profits
An outline is not a full description of your book. You don’t have to explain anything in great detail. That comes later. Of course, if you are inspired, you can write as much as you like and create a detailed outline, but the point here is to list your ideas and put them in order.
What Is an Outline and Why Do You Need One?
An outline is a system to help you organize your thoughts and ideas. An outline helps make it easier for you to write your book. Plain and simple.
An outline is the road map to your book. You wouldn’t think of driving anywhere without getting a list of all the roads and highways you need to take to get to your destination. The same is true with an outline for a book. A complete outline will be your road map to writing—and, more importantly, finishing—your book fast.
Here’s what an outline looks like:
A number or letter precedes each point or subpoint. Each time you add a new point or subpoint, the word processor will add a new letter or number in the proper sequence. If I added a section on things to do in Los Angeles, the word processor would begin with the number 2 and each item would follow as in the first example. If you move points around, your word processor will automatically revise letters and numbers. It’s a lifesaver!
Here are more reasons to outline your book before you start writing:
Time is the most important asset you have. You can always buy another book, but you can’t buy another minute. When you have an outline, you will never wonder what to write. You will write faster. You won’t have writer’s block. You’ll have time to take your kids to the park.
When you have an outline, you will save money because you aren’t wasting other people’s time. Lots of people—editors, publishers, publicists, advertising agencies—have planned their schedules around your delivery date. If you fail to deliver the book on that date, you could spend a lot of money in surcharges. Or your book might move to the back of one vendor’s to-do list, which could delay book production.
Let’s say you can write 1,000 words a day without an outline, but with an outline you can write 2,000 words a day. Simple math shows you can finish your book in half the time!
If you take that concept one step further, instead of needing 60 days to write a 60,000-word book, you’d need only 30 days or even 20 days! Think of all the things you could do—personally and professionally—with those extra days.
Is any problem worse than writer’s block? Okay, heart attacks, strokes, and all sorts of illnesses, but you know what I mean. When you stare at a blank computer screen and have nothing to write about, that’s terrifying. It’s also demoralizing, frustrating, and time wasting.
However, those problems can be overcome with—you guessed it—an outline. An outline keeps you focused. When you start a writing session, you can instantly see what you need to write. The other great thing about that outline in terms of keeping you focused is you can choose what to write.
When you have an outline, you are focused on what you need to write.
You Get a Feeling of Accomplishment
As you write, you can cross off items on your master to-do list. You’ll get a sense of accomplishment. You’ll know the end is in sight.
Get Organized So You Won’t Omit Anything Important
Wouldn’t it be a shame to pick up your freshly printed book, turn to your great essay on your favorite topic, and realize you forgot to include it? That could happen if you don’t have an outline. After all, your book will contain hundreds if not thousands of facts, figures, ideas, stories, and anecdotes. It is all too easy to forget something if you don’t stay organized.
Most likely, you’ll write in the early morning before your kids are up—or late at night after everyone’s asleep. These might be the two worst times to write because you are not at your best. You could forget to include a funny story or a dire warning or a persuasive fact. Or you might forget to include a “thank-you” to people who helped babysit your kids while you were writing. Wouldn’t you hate to have that happen?
An outline helps you brainstorm because one good idea always leads to another! However, you might not get to that great idea without writing a few other ideas first. Writing and outlining gets your brain flowing.
It’s like running. You don’t start at a fast pace. You walk, then walk faster, then jog, then run. The same is true with writing and creativity. You must warm up first and put ideas on paper. Then you’ll develop more ideas and better ideas.
This might be one of the most important reasons to have an outline. It is easier for your peers, agent, and mastermind partners to review a three-page outline than a 300-page book. First, the outline is a quick read. Second, no one except your mother wants to read a rough draft of a 300-page book (Truth alert: Your mother doesn’t want to read a lot of pages. She wants to see her name in the dedication and show the cover to her canasta friends.)
Seriously, outlines give these reviewers a quick-and-easy way to see what your book is about—and what is missing. They might have ideas you hadn’t thought of and point you to resources and reference materials you didn’t know about.
When you get feedback, you’ll find some points are unimportant and should be cut. Getting feedback earlier rather than later means you won’t waste time and resources writing and researching that topic.
Don’t Become a “Pantser”
If you don’t have an outline, you will run out of ideas. Some fiction writers call themselves “pantsers” because they don’t use outlines. Instead, they write by the seat of their pants. They start their novels with an idea, but they have no idea where the story will go.
While this might sound exciting to a nonfiction writer, there is a danger to this style. Sometimes pantsers create an implausible plot that has no resolution. Like a do-it-yourself handyman who literally paints himself into a corner, there is no way out. They’ve wasted their time and have to start over. If you value your time, don’t be a pantser.
Case Study: Betty’s Story
One of my clients had wanted to write a book for years, but she was stuck. She was good at telling people she wanted to write a book and at showing her passion for the topic. She couldn’t wait to tell any new person she met about her idea for a book.
The problem? Betty was bad at writing the book. After months and months of telling people about her dreams of becoming a best-selling author, helping thousands of people, and leading a national movement for her cause, she hadn’t written a word.
Betty had knowledge, passion, and vision. But she lacked focus. She couldn’t focus on one idea at a time and put those ideas in a logical order so she could write.
A business colleague put us in touch. In our first working session, she told me the book would show people with disabilities how to lead productive lives. She was a case in point, as she overcame problems to lead a successful life, and she wanted other people to feel as empowered as she was. That’s a good topic.
As logical as that sounds, she didn’t present this information in a logical way. She was all over the place. But that was okay. I took notes and asked questions. Then I organized her thoughts into an outline, complete with chapter headings, subheadings, and placeholders to illustrate her stories.
I sent her the outline. She was delighted. She told me for the first time, she was able to get a handle on her story and could write the book.
She felt relieved because she had a road map to get to her destination.
The Outline Process
When you finish, you’ll have a living, breathing document to keep you focused, and it will adjust as you go. An outline doesn’t lock you into things that no longer apply. As you write and research, you’ll discover new facts and stories. That’s great! You can include those new findings. You’ll also find dead ends and theories that don’t pan out. That’s great too. Cut them.
You’ve Created a Checklist without Realizing It
After you finish the outline, print it, and use it as a visual checklist. You can easily see what you need to do. As you finish writing each item, you’ll see how much progress you’ve made. It’s a great motivator!
I’d guess many books don’t get written because their authors got tripped up by something and never recovered. If you look at a book or outline like a paint-by-numbers kit that gets filled in piece-by-piece, however, you might feel more empowered. After all, in a paint-by-numbers picture, the smallest piece is as important as the largest piece. Everything needs to be in place.
You need to create an outline to save time, save money, preserve your sanity, complete your book on time—and create a better book.
Simply put, without an outline, you might run out of things to say.
Let’s outline your book now!
How to Write the Outline for Your Book
“I believe that everyone has the ability to write a book. Most would-be authors simply don’t know where to start.”
Freedom is a wonderful thing. You can do anything. You can go anywhere. You have unlimited choices.
Your book could have 10 chapters or 20 chapters. It could have 2,000 words or 65,000 words. So many choices! That’s where a lot of would-be authors get stalled. They don’t know how many words, how many chapters, or how many “anythings” they need to put in their books. They don’t even know when they are done!
Ah, but there’s the problem with freedom: You have so many options, you don’t know where to start. You procrastinate.
Let’s give your book a solid structure so you can start. This chapter will show you what a typical book looks like. Once you know the basic format, you can adjust each item to suit your needs. When you have completed the exercise to create 10 chapters, you will also have created your table of contents! Your book is already taking shape.
Basic Book Structure
Let’s look at how to construct a nonfiction business book. Once you know the basics, you can tweak the model to suit your goals.
First, let’s assume your book has 10 chapters. You can have more or fewer. But 10 gives us a starting point. Chapters can be the same length or not. It doesn’t matter.
Each chapter should have its own major theme. Ideally, each chapter follows a thought pattern that leads the reader to get to know, like, and trust you, so they adopt your ideas and want to give you their business. This is done via stories; anecdotes; visual elements such as charts, graphs, pictures or cartoons; essays; and quotes from famous people.
Every chapter should answer these questions:
- What is this chapter about?
- Why is it important for my reader to know this?
- How will I share my message?
- What will happen if readers follow my instructions? What will happen if they don’t?
- What key ideas or action steps should readers remember?
This format will help a professional who wants to build their brand, urge people to adopt their point of view, or leave a legacy for people to follow. Of course, every book is different, so modify it as you see fit. This description should help you focus.
The First Chapter
Chapter 1 is the overview. You tell readers your big idea. The first chapter explains the problem you will solve. It presents a road map of what the book contains, and it explains why you are the best person to write the book. You could also lay out the book, by telling what the reader will learn in each chapter.
Do not go into great detail about all your wonderful ideas and processes. You can tell them what you will explore with them. But don’t show them how to do it here. You do that later. You can promise them and tease them, though. Be inspirational (e.g., “You can do it!”) and educational (e.g., “Here’s what you’ll discover”).
Chapters Two through Nine
These chapters explain your basic premise and go into as much detail as needed to prove your points.
The last chapter (in our example, chapter 10) summarizes your key ideas and shows actions readers can take. Ideally, for a business author, the next steps should include how you can help readers with consulting, speaking, coaching, or other services. Authors of a legacy book might list actions readers can take to further their careers, help the world, or come to peace with themselves.
Books also have front matter (legal info, dedication, testimonials, preface, foreword, and table of contents) and back matter (index, bibliography, resources, and sales material).
How to Outline Your Book Chapter by Chapter
Figure 5: Chapter outline for a book on leadership.
Enough theory. Let’s outline your book!
Look at the daisy illustration, which shows the theme for a leadership book. Each chapter reinforces the author’s ideas about leadership. In this case, you’ll see 10 chapters that include an overview (chapter 1), a summary or next steps (chapter 10), and eight chapters that illustrate each major point. They are:
- Conclusion, Next Steps
Book Outline Format: All Purpose
Here’s another outline you can use:
Chapter 1: Overview/importance of the problem you are solving
Chapter 2: History of the problem
Chapter 3: Current state of the problem
Chapters 4–9: Descriptions of problems and solutions
Chapter 10: Future
Your Turn: List Your Ten Chapters
You can outline your book by listing ten chapters and their themes on this worksheet. When you finish, you’ll have your table of contents.
You could write only one or two words. That’s fine. If you’d rather write a sentence, that’s fine. Don’t struggle to find perfect chapter titles. That comes later.
Fill in the lines below, and you’ll take a giant step toward finishing your book.
Write your answers below:
- Introduction and overview
- Theme 1
- Theme 2
- Theme 3
- Theme 4
- Theme 5
- Theme 6
- Theme 7
- Theme 8
- Conclusion/Next Steps
Download a printable version of this worksheet at www.WriteYourBookInAFlash.com/worksheets
Congratulations! You’ve completed the first step in the outlining process—and you’ve created your table of contents.
Unlike other writing coaches who tell you to “brain dump” your ideas from your head onto paper and organize them, I gave you structure to get you started. If you did a true brain dump, you would run out of ideas because there is no structure. You won’t see what you forgot to include.
In my method, you have a system to guide and prompt you to move ideas from your head onto paper. You won’t have that deer-in-the-headlights look when you follow my instructions.
You have created the outline for your 10 chapters. Now it’s time to write the outline for each individual chapter.
This post is an excerpt from Write Your Book in a Flash by Dan Janal. You can buy the book now on Amazon if you want to learn more.
Tom Corson-Knowles is the founder of TCK Publishing, and the bestselling author of 27 books including Secrets of the Six-Figure author. He is also the host of the Publishing Profits Podcast show where we interview successful authors and publishing industry experts to share their tips for creating a successful writing career.