Your outline is the structure of your book, and thus incredibly important. If you start writing without a structure, the process will take forever and the product 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 what you learned about outlining in school. It is a somewhat unconventional way to approach it. But it’s the process we developed at Scribe to give our authors the best chance of actually getting their book done.
Would you rather watch 4x NYTimes Bestselling Author and Scribe co-founder, Tucker Max explain how to outline your non-fiction book?
Then watch the video below from Scribe Book School, and then keep reading for a deeper understanding.
What makes our outline different is we only intend it to trigger the proper ideas and concepts for each chapter, so when you sit down to write, you know what to focus on.
Step 1: Brainstorm the Chapters for Your Book
The first step in creating your outline is to brainstorm and figure out what the chapters are for your book.
What is 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.
Also, don’t spend too much time worrying about chapter titles. Just put something in, you can change it later.
While there are numerous ways to brainstorm, here are the frameworks that we’ve found work best:
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.
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 avatar 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.
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 on brainstorming: We’ve seen some authors start this and instead begin to write the book, producing pages and pages and getting frustrated. Don’t go down that rabbit hole. Your list of key points and arguments shouldn’t run longer than a couple of pages.
If you’re writing more than that at this stage, you’re getting in too deep too soon. Stay at the 30,000-foot level. 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.
Whichever model you choose, understand that this part of the process can take some time, but do not get too bogged down in it. 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 of 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 from any random ideas and keeps you focused on the main idea of your book, and gives you a place to put the seeds of your future books for later harvesting.
Step 2: Create a Table of Contents
Once you have what you think are your chapters, then put it in your Table of Contents, and 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. DO NOT overwrite these. 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?
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
If you have outlining experience, you may notice we don’t structure our outline in the traditional way, something 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 helped thousands of authors position, structure, and write books, and by this point, we’ve tested everything. 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, 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.
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.
REFERENCE: Everything else you may need to know about book chapters is in here: Everything You Need To Know About Book Chapters.