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.
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.
The steps in the book outline process are where you think and plan; writing is where you execute. So focus, nail this, and you’ll be halfway done with your book. But first,
Step 1: Brainstorm the Chapters for Your Book
The first step in brainstorming is to 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 organize your book, it can be a step in the process, or one of several principles, or anything where information is cogently organized.
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.
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 on 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, and you can change it later.
If, in the process of brainstorming, you add in some of the content that will go in the chapters, that’s fine, but at this point, you are better off focusing on what the chapters will be and not adding too much content within chapters.
How Do I Brainstorm Chapters?
While there are numerous ways to do this, here are the three frameworks we have found that work best:
Framework 1: “Workshop Presentation”
This framework is great for people used to formally presenting their knowledge. Just imagine that you’re giving a speech, presentation, or workshop 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. 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, 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 it 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.
A reminder: don’t stress over chapter titles here. You can always change them later.
Table Of Contents Example:
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 backward.
Chapter 2: Myth #2: LinkedIn is the end-all-be-all source for Recruiting
In reality, it’s only one sourcing too. 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 and 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
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 just there 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.
This next section is the explanation. Below this, we show you two chapter examples.
Chapter X: [INSERT YOUR WORKING TITLE]
- 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 setups tend to be emotionally intense or show some sort of mistake (which is usually emotionally intense).
- The best way to start a setup is by “coming in late” as is said in screenwriting. Begin with a scene or a quote or something that jumps right into the point you are making.
- Thesis of chapter
- Once you have a setup, 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 setup + segue to next chapter
- This is an optional section, but most books benefit from tying the end of the chapter back to the setup and then giving some sort of segue to the next chapter.
Chapter 3: How Can We Improve Public Health?
1. Setup: American Public Health Association quote about public health and how it is the biggest unaddressed issue facing America.
2. Thesis of the 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 and setup: American Public Health Association quote about how public health can be addressed.
6. Seque to the next chapter: The public health space is complicated. Understanding this, and that 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. Setup: Google search shows over one million articles about how technology is going to replace recruiters
2. Thesis of the 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 setup: Despite all the discourse and panic, there will be great new opportunities for readers who make themselves invaluable and invincible
6. Seque to the next chapter: Now that you understand how technology will help recruiters, it’s time to look at how to use technology properly
That’s all. Now you’re ready to start outlining your book. Need that link to the template again? Get it here, it’s all yours.