Writing a book outline is an essential step toward the monumental project of writing a book. You will write faster, minimize time crunches, and produce a more compelling argument. Get ready to write a book outline with our guide, and your readers, editors, and publishers will thank you!
Have you had a book idea bouncing around in your head for a while? Did you start to put together a book proposal only to blank when it came to the table of contents section? Are your family, friends, or maybe even a publisher begging (demanding) to know when your book will finally be finished?
It’s time to write an outline.
Whether you are working with a traditional publisher or self-publishing, an outline is a non-negotiable stepping-stone to the finished book. And guess what– The Speaker Lab is here to guide you through the process. From why you need to write one in the first place, to compose the outline, to choosing which tools will help you write the best outline, use this piece as a guide for writing your book outline.
Through this article, you’ll learn:
- Why you need a book outline
- How to write a book outline
- What resources you can use to write a book outline
1. Why do I need to write a book outline?
If you’re full of ideas and champing at the bit to start writing, the idea of an outline might make your protest. Especially if you were that kid in high school who just brain-dumped papers, shifted paragraphs around at 11:59 PM, and came out with good grades anyway. You might have even gotten away with it in college. Hey, at least you did the reading, right?
Unfortunately, future readers and publishers will not let you get away with slacking on an outline. If your amazing argument is hidden in layers of word scramble, it might go unnoticed or worse–misunderstood. Worst of all, a badly organized book might leave readers more confused than when they started!
To clearly get your point across, you have to organize your thoughts before you write the book. The outline is the result of organizing those thoughts and acts as a beacon of clarity in the sea of writing upon which you are about to embark.
The biggest benefits of writing a book outline include:
- YOU WILL AVOID WRITER’S BLOCK.
When you struggle to focus or feel overwhelmed by the immense task of writing, your outline will redirect you to a narrow idea, subset, or piece of your argument. You will always know what to write about next, and if you’re still stuck on one topic, you have an organized list of others to cover. Nobody is making you write the book in order from start to finish, and skipping around from section to section in your outline will keep your mind active.
You will not be desperately trying to come up with content for a chapter as deadlines loom, because you will know exactly what belongs in that chapter already. Now is not the time to trust ingenuity and charge ahead without a plan. If you’re a spontaneous, fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants type of writer, this could be a difficult transition.
Writing an outline feels like a limit on your creativity, forcing you to cover every section in an orderly manner rather than focusing on the one you feel fired up about. Don’t quit yet! As we’ll explain in the next section, there are less structured ways you can approach writing a book outline without sacrificing spontaneity and creativity.
- YOUR BOOK IS WELL-ORGANIZED.
If it was true for an essay, it’s even more true for a book. Going through the careful effort of writing an outline for your book will ensure you don’t leave out important points and give you clarity and insight into your argument. It is far better to adapt your argument or fill in a missing piece early on in the outlining process rather than 50,000 words in.
- AN OUTLINE PREVENTS UNEXPECTED STRUCTURAL CHANGES.
If you get carried away on one topic only to realize you are well over a reasonable chapter word limit, you will have to spend time reorganizing and cutting material. If you like to write in a stream-of-consciousness style, you might not realize that you failed to include a golden thread of continuity throughout your chapters. You could reach what you think is the end of your manuscript, only to realize you should have saved something you said earlier for a real kicker at the end. An outline will protect you from major last-minute edits, saving you from stress and wasted time.
- AN OUTLINE ENHANCES YOUR TIME MANAGEMENT.
Whether you are still working a 9-5 with limited windows for writing, have editors breathing down your neck as deadlines approach, or need to get your book finished before a big life event, time is of the essence. Writing an outline frees up your time by getting the organization and argumentative structure out of the way up front.
Furthermore, you will be able to plan out your writing schedule from introduction to conclusion without any surprises. If you know exactly how many more sections you have left, you will be free from worrying about leaving something unfinished or unwritten due to time constraints.
And to reiterate, you don’t need to write the book in order! An outline will let you shift from section to section while keeping track of how much is left, even if you write the last chapter first.
Some of these time-saving benefits, such as avoiding deadline-induced panic, are especially relevant if you’re following the traditional publishing path. So, why write an outline for your book if you’re self-publishing?
Really, it just makes your book better.
Furthermore, even if you follow the simplest route of selling an EBook through Amazon, your book will contribute to the personal brand you are building as an author. You want your first book, even if it’s a small self-published project, to be an excellent presentation of your well-organized thoughts. If the right people notice your self-published work, you could land yourself a successful book deal sooner than you think!
2. How to write a book outline
If you start with a blank page and immediately try to write out all the sections, subsections, and sub-subsections of chapter 1, you will burn out quickly. You might not even need to use a super-detailed bullet-point list format to have a firm footing for your book (but if that’s your style go for it). Either way, you have to start with the basics.
Start with the primary proposition or takeaway you want your readers to understand. This is the solution for the problem you are solving, the need you are meeting, or the new idea you are promoting. If this were an essay, this would be your thesis statement.
Writing your book outline is a step toward coherently stating your argument. If the arc of your argument doesn’t resolve until the last chapter, this part might end up in the last section of your outline! Nevertheless, it’s an important starting point for the outlining process.
Once you’ve formulated the overarching takeaway from your book, work backward. How is the reader going to get to that conclusion? What are the compelling points of your argument that will convince them? What is the background information they need to know beforehand? What stories and examples will you use to illustrate your point?
If you are in the early stages of writing and have a hard time analyzing your book idea in terms of an argument, talking it out might help. Have a friend over, order some pizza, and try to explain to them what you would want a reader to learn from your book. Note the questions they ask if they “just don’t get it.” Find out what examples help a listener grasp your conclusion, and work them into supporting material for your thesis.
Another popular method for getting started on your outline is the “mind map.” Write your big idea in the center of a piece of paper, and draw connecting lines to the major sections of your argument. Cluster around their associated principles, points, examples, and stories. Eventually you will have a rough snowflake, or spoked wheel, with several attached groups of ideas, which you can then transform into sections or even chapters on your outline.
Once you’ve established the chunks of your book, you will need to order your sections. Make sure a golden thread connects each section to the next, culminating in a summit that rounds off nicely in your conclusion. The book should also have a steady, varied pace–if you worry your reader might get bored, try reordering!
You can consider your outline “finished” when each section expanded as a standalone topic makes up the entire book. But don’t feel chained to the outline! It is a guide, a living document, not an unchanging rulebook (after all, you wrote it!)
As you start to write your book, you might realize some sections make more sense in a different order. Maybe you’ll even take out a superfluous chapter that you can summarize in a single paragraph! All in all, with a thorough outline, your book will essentially write itself.
3. Helpful resources
You can follow all our suggestions for writing an outline in a notebook, index cards, sketchpad, or Word document, but we highly recommend using an outlining tool for your final version. Depending on your creative genius and writing style there are some great software programs that will give you a great headstart on your book.
We’ve gathered our favorites here!
- Scrivener: an affordable software for writing a book that many authors swear by. Scrivener is easiest to use as a full-service book-writing aid, from outline to published work. Its features include tools for your preliminary research, note organization, outlining, writing, formatting, and printing. Because of the all-encompassing nature of the app, you will have to devote some time to learning it before you start writing a book outline, but it is totally worth it!
- Reedsy: another end-to-end book writing software, with an emphasis on connecting you to professionals who can help you self-publish. If you’re looking to find a graphic designer, marketer, or editor during the process of outlining and writing your book, Reedsy will serve as both your Word Processor and your networking service. Most of their writing tools and templates are free, but their publication services charge a fee or commission.
- Plottr: a great outlining tool for visual thinkers, utilizing rearrangeable virtual “story cards”. Since it is catered toward novelists, the organizational tools will be most useful to nonfiction writers if your book includes a lot of storytelling, anecdotes, or examples. Plottr also exports to Scrivener if you prefer the more colorful outlining interface but Scrivener’s book-writing services.
- Trello: many nonfiction authors find it helpful to think of their outline as a business plan for their book. It is no surprise then that the project management software Trello can be used for grouping ideas, evaluating supporting material, and organizing chapters. If your book includes lots of case studies, this might be a great choice for outlining!
- Coggle: if you like the idea of mind-mapping described above, Coggle will help you take your mind map from scrap paper to the screen with fun software that allows you to get very in-depth with the mind map format. It is easy to use for beginners, and you can transfer the ideas easily to a more formal version in Reedsy or Scrivener.
So you finished writing the outline. What now?
Writing the book of course. And I can guarantee it will go faster now that you’ve written an outline.
Furthermore, if you’re working on tight deadlines or limited time for writing, you can evaluate how long each chapter will take much more precisely. Your book outline will act as a framework for your writing routine, whether you’re getting up at 4 AM to write for two hours every morning or taking a summer off to get the book done in one fell swoop.
Ultimately, regardless of what format it takes, your book outline should take you seamlessly through your argument, serving as a comprehensive roadmap to your book. You are now well on your way to writing a stellar book with a compelling argument that will leave readers asking for more!
Here are a few common FAQs to help you out:
How do you write an outline for a book?
Start with brainstorming ideas, talking it out with friends, and making a mind map to get your ideas out on paper. Then organize your sections such that they cover every piece of your argument and its supporting material, in the order you want them to be read.
What is an outline format?
There are many different formatting options for writing a book outline, but as long as all the major pieces of your argument are represented it can be as simple or as complex as you choose.
Is there a template for writing a book?
The best software to use for templates to outline and write your book are Scrivener, Reedsy, Plottr, Trello, and Coggle.
How many pages should be in a book?
Most nonfiction books are in the 150-250 page range, or 35,000–70,000 words.