Your book outline is the structure of your book, and thus incredibly important. If you start writing without a good outline template, the process will take forever and your book will be haphazard and incomplete.
Worse, having no outline often leads to not finishing your book at all.
What I am about to teach is not the outline template you learned about in school. It’s an unconventional approach. But it’s the process we developed to give our authors the best chance of actually getting their book done.
Download the free book outline template here, and then let’s get started.
You can download in Google Docs or Microsoft Word.
Why You Should Use Our Book Outline Template
Start with the numbers: at Scribe we’ve helped outline (and write) more than 1400 books. In that number includes some of the biggest and best selling authors in the world (like David Goggins, Tiffany Haddish, and Nassim Taleb).
But the deeper reason is that this outline process is superior to anything else we’ve ever seen. The outline process you know was developed for school. The school outline method is about showing your work. It’s about grades. We don’t care about grades–we care about writing a great book.
What makes our book outline different is it’s designed to help you write your book. After working with all those authors, we know what authors need in their outline to get their book written. The basic idea is to use the book outline as a roadmap to help you know what to write in each chapter.
I know, this is simple, but it’s different than most book outlines. We don’t focus on story structure, there’s no mention of turning points or character arcs or subplots for a main character or any of the typical devices that are used primarily in novel writing. It’s not that this is wrong.
This book outline is just designed for non-fiction books only.
If you want a novel outline template, I recommend this post.
How To Outline A Book In 3 Steps
Step 1: Brainstorm the Chapters for Your Book
The first step to create your outline is to brainstorm what the chapters are for your book.
What’s a chapter? It’s basically a single cohesive idea, fully explored. Depending on how you organized your book, it can be a step in the process, or one of several principles, or anything like that.
Keep working your list of chapters—adding, subtracting, moving—until you have the major points you want to explain, in the basic order you want to explain them.
Don’t worry too much about the order at this point, they will probably change in the next step. All you want to do here is figure out exactly what your chapters are.
If you have trouble brainstorming, here are the frameworks that we’ve found work best:
Brainstorm Framework 1: “Workshop Presentation”
This framework works very well for people used to formally presenting their knowledge. Just imagine that you are giving a speech, presentation, or workshop to go over your material.
What would be part 1?
What would be part 2?
How would you break up the days?
Basically the structure of the workshop or presentation becomes the chapters of the book.
Brainstorm Framework 2: “Teach Your Book”
For this model, begin with your ideal reader, someone who is in your primary audience that you described in your positioning. Now, imagine teaching them everything in your book.
What are the major lessons?
What is step one?
Step two? Write it all down.
If you get stuck in this model, your ideal reader is your motivator. Picture your ideal client, friend, or student in your mind: how would you explain your process to them?
What would they get confused about?
What points do they struggle with?
What lessons have you conveyed to them?
What did they find particularly helpful?
What questions do they ask you?
The beauty of “teaching your book” is that it’s an excellent frame to articulate the knowledge you have that you may take for granted.
Brainstorm Framework 3: “What Needs to Be Said?”
Write down the main ideas, concepts, arguments, and principles that you want to make in your book. Don’t get too granular—this is not about fleshing out every detail. This is about getting down the major points.
Warning: We’ve seen authors begin to write the book at this stage, producing pages and pages and getting frustrated.
Don’t go down that rabbit hole. Your brainstorm list of key points and arguments shouldn’t run longer than a couple of pages.
If you’re writing a bunch, you’re getting in too deep too soon. Keep your descriptions to short phrases or single sentences so you’re forced to stick to main points.
Don’t worry about capturing all the details that come to mind. You won’t forget what you know. Instead, this is about clarifying what you know, down to the basics that you want to describe to your reader. The point here is to find the major ideas and themes—the chapters. You can always come back and change things later if necessary.
Helpful Note: When you are brainstorming your chapters, have a section of your page called the “parking lot.”
Put all the good ideas you have that don’t seem to fit, into the parking lot. It’s a place for you to keep those ideas without having to throw them away. This also helps you free your mind and keeps you focused on the main idea of your book, while still retaining the seeds of your future books.
Step 2: Create a Table of Contents
Once you have what you think are your chapters, then put it in your Table of Contents. Then write the key takeaway for each chapter, which is called a thesis statement.
A thesis statement is a short summation of the main point you want to make in the chapter. It should be one or two sentences, that’s it.
Example Table Of Contents:
|Introduction||The Myths of Human Resources|
|Chapter 1:||MYTH #1: SKILLS ARE THE MOST IMPORTANT THING|
Hire for skills and fire for behavior? That is completely backwards.
|Chapter 2:||MYTH #2: LINKEDIN IS THE END-ALL-BE-ALL SOURCE FOR RECRUITING|
In reality, it’s only one sourcing tool. It holds recruiters captive, thinking they don’t have choices.
|Chapter 3:||MYTH #3: RECRUITERS DON’T NEED TO BE MARKETERS|
Wrong. In this day and age, anyone in sales is a marketer.
|Chapter 4:||MYTH #4: CANDIDATES ARE ONLY INTERESTED IN TITLES & MONEY|
Truth is, we all buy emotionally and justify rationally. It’s the same with candidates.
|Chapter 5:||MYTH #5: RECRUITERS ARE NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR QUALITY OF HIRE|
They THINK they’re not. And that's why they fail.
|Chapter 6:||MYTH #6: RECRUITERS WILL BE REPLACED BY TECHNOLOGY|
Technology is a tool, not a silver bullet, and automating a broken system only speeds up failure.
|Chapter 7:||MYTH #7: DIVERSITY IS GOOD BECAUSE IT’S THE “RIGHT THING TO DO”|
Diversity IS good. But not only because it’s the right thing to do, because it's the right BUSINESS thing to do.
|Conclusion||It’s Time to Take Human Resources Seriously|
How Many Chapters Should There Be?
If there are at least 5, and no more than 15, that’s normal. If you have less than 5, or more than 15, that is not necessarily wrong, but it is very unusual.
If you do that, you’d better have a good reason, one that makes a lot of sense to the reader.
Step 3: Fill In the Outline Structure
Using the Table of Contents you created, now fill in the template for each chapter outline.
Remember: Don’t write the book in the outline, the outline is to tell you what to write.
Below is the outline structure we recommend. It lays out the various elements you’ll need for each chapter. Just fill in the information, which you will use as your guide to write the book. Below this, we show you two chapter examples.
Chapter X: [INSERT WORKING TITLE]
- Chapter Hook
- This should be a personal story, historical anecdote, question to reader, shocking statement, or anything that draws in the attention of the reader and sets up what is about to come in the chapter.
- Do not be intimidated by this—all you really need to do here is tell a good short story or anecdote or introduce a fact that is engaging. It might not even be longer than a great tweet.
- The best chapter hooks tend to be emotionally intense, or some sort of mistake (which is usually emotionally intense).
- The best way to start a chapter is by “coming in late.” Begin with a scene or a quote or something that jumps right into the point you are making.
- I talk more about hooks in the post on Introductions.
- Thesis of chapter
- Once you have a chapter hook, then you plainly state what will be taught/discussed in this chapter.
- Essentially, you tell them what you’re going to tell them.
- This should be the same as the key takeaway in the Table of Contents.
- Supporting content
- List all the key points/evidence for argument/factual content/plot points.
- This is the bulk of the section. You can do this quickly and succinctly, but the outline of the chapter should be laid out fairly well.
- Don’t go too in-depth by writing every detail, but do be specific and thorough. You are creating an outline, after all. If you see you’ve written paragraphs, you’re getting ahead of yourself.
- Make sure these are ordered in a logical way so that they’re building their point or argument like a pyramid, providing the basic foundational information first, then building up from there.
- Make sure you look at this section from the vantage point of your reader, rather than your own. Your reader is not the expert, you are, so this section needs to be tailored to them.
- Stories & Examples
- This is where you list the stories you think you want to tell in this chapter. Effective stories are crucial to the success of a book. They are a great way to make the book and its specific takeaway points more memorable. Many readers forget facts after they read a book, but anecdotes and stories stay with them. They’re often more “sticky.”
- Make sure your stories are specific and highly relevant. You are not looking for a generic story in these points; rather, this should be a story that fits precisely here and demonstrates the message you want to convey.
- This does NOT mean that in your book, you write your supporting evidence, and THEN your stories. Of course you will integrate stories and supporting content.
- We recommend separating them in the outline, simply because it’s not always clear which stories you want to use and where. Listing these separately allows you to figure this out as you go. This gets you writing faster, which is the optimal way to outline.
- Reader’s key takeaway
- This should be the summary at the end of the chapter. It clearly lays out what the reader needs to know from this chapter.
- Essentially, you tell them what you just told them.
- Callback to/wrap-up of opening chapter hook + segue to next chapter
- This is an optional section, but most books benefit from tying the end of the chapter back to the hook, and then giving some sort of segue to the next chapter.
|Chapter 3: How Can We Improve Public Health?|
|1. Chapter Hook||American Public Health Association quote about public health and how it is the biggest unaddressed issue facing America|
|2. Thesis of chapter||No other healthcare space can benefit more from the application of anthropology and design thinking than the public health sector.|
|3. Chapter content||The current problems within healthcare|
Why design thinking alone is not the solution (every patient requires their own individualized approach)
What does educational assistance look like in public health?
What we can learn from public health experts (What is their process and what tools do they use?)
How anthropology and design thinking come together to benefit public health
|4. Key takeaway||While public health officials try to understand the problems patients are facing, they will always miss the mark as long as they fail to start by understanding the patient—this is why design thinking and anthropology are so important in the public health space.|
|5. Callback to hook||American Public Health Association quote about how public health can be addressed|
|6. Segue to next chapter||The public health space is complicated. Understanding this, and that the space is further complicated by cultural barriers, enables you to work harder to find solutions that fill these gaps.|
|Chapter 6: Recruiters Will Be Replaced by Technology|
|1. Chapter Hook||Google search shows over one million articles about how technology is going to replace recruiters|
|2. Thesis of chapter||AI will replace millions of jobs, but it will CREATE millions more. Technology will NOT replace recruiters. Rather, it will create more demand for recruiters with the RIGHT SKILL SETS, which is what this chapter is all about|
|3. Chapter content||How to draw the brakes on automating a broken system until the underlying problems are fixed|
What readers need to consider in terms of their process before they go about implementing new technology
How to develop the kind of skills that technology will never be able to replace
|4. Key takeaway||Technology is only a tool. In and of itself, it can’t fix a broken process|
|5. Callback to hook||Despite all the discourse and panic, there will be great new opportunities for readers who make themselves invaluable and invincible|
|6. Segue to next chapter||Now that you understand how technology will help recruiters, it’s time to look at how to use technology properly|
Question: Why Not Structure Chapters Like You’ll Write Them?
Like we told you, we don’t structure our outline in the traditional way, like this:
- Major Point 1
- Minor Point 1
- Story Y
- Example Y
- Minor Point 2
- Story X
- Example X
- Minor Point 1
- Major Point 2
- Minor Point 1
- Story A
- Point B
- Minor Point 2
- Story A
- Point B
- Minor Point 1
There are a few reasons we don’t recommend this style of outline:
1. It doesn’t work well
We’ve found that the traditional outline style doesn’t work well with most authors. There are several reasons we think it doesn’t work that well (the main one is detailed below), but why it doesn’t work almost doesn’t matter.
The fact is, it does NOT work. We developed our style of outlining after testing dozens of different iterations and realizing what actually produced the best books in the shortest time.
2. Most authors can’t get to that level of detail until they start writing
For most authors, they have problems actually understanding ahead of time precisely how to lay their books out. This is understandable; writing and structuring books is hard and very foreign to people who haven’t done it before.
We find that the traditional outline structure gets people lost in the outline, and that the best way to actually get people to writing is to chunk up the chapter into sections. Then have authors write down enough so they understand what they are trying to say and what they need to write, and then figure out the details as they write.
Basically, what they need is a road map, not a detailed excel spreadsheet.
3. This style keeps the author moving forward, instead of getting stuck
The conventional way of outlining forces the author to get very deep into their knowledge at a stage where some of the ideas may not be worked out yet. Most people do not do well with a long detailed outline, but do better by writing their way to understanding.
This process allows for either approach—you can go detailed if you really want, or you can just get the bullets down that you need, and then figure the rest out as you write.
Should I Use Special Outlining Software?
If you already use and love Scrivener, then great, keep using it. But in our experience, for most first time authors, it is a huge waste of time to learn and use.
The Scrivener templates are fine, but nothing you can’t do in Google Docs or Microsoft Word. Scrivener is really good for fiction writers.