Six steps to a great Outline for your Non-Fiction book

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Writing a book is like creating a living thing. First, there has to be a skeleton – an outline. On that skeleton you can add the flesh, organs, and the fire-breathing glands of your powerful, mythical creature.

Outlining a non-fiction book works differently from outlining a fiction book. Outlining fiction can be much more open and free-flowing. Some famous authors like Stephen King say they never outline at all. But outlining definitely helps in non-fiction.

There are many types of non-fiction, but for this post we’ll categorize them into two types : Self-driven & Market-driven. Self-driven non-fiction can be a personal story or insight – like “Writing Zero” by Rajesh Setty. Or, it can be based on new research where you have a lot of original content that you are offering – like “Freakonomics” or “Outliers”. Market-driven non-fiction is where you are trying to help people find answers and insight primarily based on secondary research. Most non-fiction books are somewhere between Self-driven and Market-driven. Whatever you choose to write, it will position you – the author – as an expert.

If your book is self-driven, then you can outline more creatively. Somewhat like the outline for a novel. You can also do it later in the writing process. But if you’re trying to write a “Market driven” non-fiction book, it helps to have the outline in place before you start. Even if your book is between the two, this approach to outlining may work well for you.

Outlining your book is the first step, and it’s very tempting to jump right in. Below are the six critical steps to getting it right.

1. Pre-work.

Before you outline, it is critical to clearly define two things.  What is your tentative title? Who is your reader?

Start with picking the subject of the book. Picking the right subject is important. Taking a very wide topic can make things difficult, but taking something narrower or niche can usually simplify the process. Let’s say you take the topic of Finance. Now that is way too wide, and will make it difficult for your book to stand out. Unless you have strong reason to believe that you can actually pull off a generic book. A generic book like “The Tech Whisperer” by Jaspreet Bindra which is about the impact of new technology on business needs someone of his stature to pull if off. I would recommend that you narrow it down. Maybe you can talk about finance for start-ups or personal finance or financial planning or some such. Then within that category, choose an even more specialized niche. Say “Financial Planning for self-employed people” or “Finance for Fintech startups” or some such. The idea is to own a niche. When you write for a niche, you speak to fewer people, but your book will appeal to them a lot more than a generic book.

Think of your book title carefully.  Things can change a lot with one twist of a word. For example, consider the title: “Write a book to grow your brand” and compare it with “Write to grow your business.” They sound similar, but the two titles completely change the scope of the book. The first is limited and much narrower, while the second has a very wide scope. The second one can talk about everything from writing blogs to social media posts, and much more.

Your reader profile also changes with the book title. The first one is more targeted and will be more limited in who it appeals to. The second one can appeal to many more people, but risks sounding too generic.

So once you have some clarity about your tentative title and audience you can move into outlining. I say tentative very consciously. As you do your research you may decide to change the title or the audience.

2. First-level Structure

Once you’ve nailed the niche, you create a “first-level” structure.

That first level structure is a tentative “Table of Contents.” For the more visual, a mind-map can work great. Break the book subject down to various chapters.

So, if we take our example forward and pick “Finance for start-ups”, the chapters may look like:

a. Bootstrapping.

b. Angel investor.

c. Managing cash flow,

d. Is debt a good idea?

e. When and how to raise series A & B.

f. Valuation of start-ups.

Etc.

Once you have a tentative chapter structure in place, you should start digging into the details of each of these chapters to identify topics.

3. Find out what questions people are asking – Quora & Google

Once that first-level structure is done, you want to ask yourself, “What questions are people asking? What is the information people are looking for?” Technology can help with this.

Your first stop is Quora. Check out the questions people are asking about the chapters and topics you have selected. Next, open a Google search bar and enter search terms, or part of a search term. The autosuggest feature of Google is very useful for understanding what people are searching for. For example, I typed in “Angel investor” and the following terms turned up in autosuggest:

These tools help you understand what people are searching for. Some of these, like Angel investor Vs Venture Capitalist, or Angel Investor Network India, could be relevant topics for our book. This also gives us a place to research and learn more.

4. Find out what other experts are saying.

Another interesting approach I came across was advocated by Nitin Soni of Adhyyan. He suggests that you download the top 5 books on the subject you are writing about. He specifically says that you should not buy print books but download their ebooks. Then use the Control-F and find the specific topics which you are writing about in all five books. That way you can find out what the best writers have to say about that topic. Further, this also gives you insight into the research they have cited – and you can always cite the same research in your writing.

I would be careful with that approach because your book might become too much of a copy. It will be very tempting to start copying –which is the absolute worst thing you could do. And while they say, “If you steal from one author, it’s plagiarism; if you steal from many, it’s research.” I would watch that line pretty carefully. However, this could be a useful tool to continue to strengthen your outline.

Another way to get the same insights are free online resources, such as TED talks. They are great to understand what experts say about certain topics.

5. Collate everything

You take all this knowledge and insight and dump it all together. Then your book content is all put together and available to you. You know everything that people are asking, and you have a “long-list” of all the topics you want to include in your book.

6. Organize

As you look through this mass of chapters and topics, you will find some repetition and redundancy. Some topics can be sub-topics to others. You can drop some altogether, while others may be so important they become chapters. As you start to give it all shape, some clear structure and flow can emerge, and the initial bits can be rearranged to look like this:

 (Created free at www.Gitmind.com.)

By organizing this mass of content, you can create a full outline of your book. You have a detailed structure of your book down to each chapter and topic. This incorporates each category and the questions you’ve identified. The questions may also point to changes in the chapter structure that you should embrace. Maybe you had a chapter on the history of start-up funding, but your research shows that people aren’t interested in that. Instead, it seems a lot more are interested in what options exist for start-ups to borrow money. Tweak the outline based on your findings.

Once you have organized this mass of information into a logical structure, the outline of your non-fiction book is ready. You’re ready to start writing ! However, as you proceed to write, don’t take this outline as written in stone. It is a good framework to follow, but it is flexible. (This 2-minute video talks about that flexibility in the context of a novel, but it is still relevant). You always have the freedom to change it as you go deeper into your writing.

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7 Responses

  1. So, there is a method-to-the-madness! Thanks for sharing. I especially appreciate your detailed presentation in very simple words.

  2. Very useful and timely post, Chetan! I have an outline already, but, after reading this post and the questions from google on the chapters, I am rearranging the chapters! Thank you for the post!

  3. Nice write up Chetan, this helps. I firmly believe that the base work is critically important. There is a nice article in Tim’s blog which explains in detail how to research for your book.

  4. Being organised is very easy, if you’ve the right tools and techniques. So, going by this my outline need not be a fixed one and can be flexible. This helps a lot because at the time of starting a book it feels a lot safer not to outline at all. It’s a pitfall that we feel as authors to avoid rigidity. Now, I feel it’s better to have an alterable outline than to not have at all. Thanks for keeping us enlightened.

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