You probably wouldn’t jump into your car and embark on a road trip without at least a rough road map of where you plan to go.
Similarly, writing a nonfiction book is a long journey for an author. And starting that journey without a road map will cost you time in the long run.
Why? Authoring a book is a huge endeavour and, unless you’ve written many books or are just plain lucky or gifted, your book project needs a road map.
In the publishing industry a book road map is called an outline. It’s essentially a blueprint, laying out the direction of your book, along with detailed notes on sections, chapters, and content.
An outline helps you organize your thoughts and create a logical flow of coherent chapters. Ultimately, an outline can save you a lot of time and anguish spent hitting dead ends, reversing course, or ending up in the dreaded quagmire known as writer’s block.
Most bestselling nonfiction writers create book outlines. Many guests on Josh Steimle’s Published Author Podcast use outlines to take them from a book idea to a finished first draft. Other guests have used presentations as the basis for a book outline.
As a writing coach with Published Author, Josh Steimle believes a comprehensive book outline is essential. As he said in My Top 15 Business Book Writing Hacks, it may feel faster to just start writing, but you’ll pay for it later when you encounter writer’s block, spend time editing your work, and have to pay more to your editor.
On top of saving time and money, an outline will make your book 10 times better. This is especially true for entrepreneurs who are not yet published authors and writing their first book. You may not be accustomed to the challenge of writing something so lengthy and detailed.
There are different types of book outlines. Some outlines are brief and contain the barest of details about the chapters and content.
The opposite of a brief outline is a fat outline and, as the name implies, it has a substantial amount of detail about the proposed book. A fat outline is a meaty document and will contain some if not all of the following:
A fat outline may contain more information than is included in the final draft. There are a number of reasons for this. You may discover that in a section or chapter you’ve veered off into a new or different direction which explores a whole new topic, or picks up from the subject your book covers. This content could be the foundation of your next book.
Sometimes an editor or publisher will tell you your outline is too long, and that some of the content needs to be removed. Again, this material could be used in your next book.
Neil Sahota, who wrote the bestseller Own the A.I. Revolution: Unlock Your Artificial Intelligence Strategy to Disrupt Your Competition, explains that he created a detailed outline, with the help of co-author Michael Ashley.
Neil is a strong advocate of the creation of detailed outlines, particularly after the success of his co-authoring experience and Own The AI Revolution. He also recommends that first-time authors work with a knowledgeable and experienced author to make the book-writing process easier.
Says Neil: “Michael really helped me structure the book and develop some common themes.
“I had lots of knowledge, but they were kind of scattershot ideas. We spent a good five or six hours just throwing everything out there.”
That “throwing everything out there” led to the creation of Neil and Michael’s fat outline.
“It took about six weeks to build a detailed outline, which was about 54 pages long,” explains Neil. “It was immensely helpful, because it really structured things and helped us tell the story to the audience. A good outline makes the writing process so much easier and helps you keep in mind who your audience is.”
Listen to Neil’s full interview.
When it comes to Leo Bottary, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. His books —What Anyone Can Do, and The Power of Peers—are bestsellers and have dozens of five-star reviews. He’s an advocate of writing a detailed book outline before sitting down to write the actual book.
Leo says of an outline: “It’s like I’m framing a house and doing the architecture first, before I start moving the furniture in. I start with a basic outline and then try to craft the chapters,” explains Leo.
That said, Leo sometimes finds merit in just diving into the actual writing, although this advice applies to experienced writers and not necessarily novice book writers.
“Don’t try to overthink your writing. Just get into it and you’ll find your way,” says Leo in his podcast interview.
Non-fiction author Blake Snow has written for top media outlets, including CNN, Wired, and USA Today. He’s a blogger and author of two books: Log Off: How to Stay Connected After Disconnecting, and Measuring History: How One Unsung Company Quietly Changed The World, the story of National Instruments, a company you probably haven’t heard of, but which has had a global impact on lives big and small.
Despite extensive writing experience, Blake still uses book outlines because they function as a map and compass.
Explains Blake: “You’re going to be forced to draft a compelling outline or a story arc and how you want to get there. You need some good foresight of where you need to head,” he says.
When it comes to sitting down to write a book, Blake relinquishes the big picture and focuses on breaking down his writing into bite-sized pieces. This approach has helped him overcome protracted episodes of writer’s block.
“Instead of writing a book, it was ‘Let’s write 1,000 words today.’ If you keep that momentum, you won’t stall out as long or as hard as I did during my first book.”
However, Blake cautions would-be published authors that having a book outline won’t guarantee a good book. He says there are times when he starts writing a chapter noted in his outline, but it may not fit in with the rest of the content, or that he just doesn’t think it’s very good.
Blake observes: “That’s totally okay, it’s normal. You're human if you do that. You just delete it and start over.”
Ryan Foland is co-author of the best-selling, award-winning Ditch the Act: Reveal the Surprising Power of the Real You for Greater Success, written with Leonard Kim.
Writing that book provided Ryan with an advanced education in dealing with agents, consultants and publishers.
Ryan explains: “The best piece of advice we got was to first outline the entire book. We spent a lot of time putting the whole book together as one big outline.
That outline was an essential part of pitching the book to publishers. “They’re basically buying an outline of the book, and then it’s your responsibility to actually write the book.”
Ryan said he and his co-author included chucks of research and the types of stories they intended to use in their outline. Some parts of the outline actually included whole chapters.
Episode 0007 is my interview with Ryan, and his approach to writing Ditch The Act.
As important as outlines are, authors shouldn’t be blindly married to them when the writing process suggests better alternatives.
That’s what Anne Janzer discovered when she surveyed more than 400 fellow authors for her latest book, Get The Word Out: Write A Book That Makes A Difference.
“We tend to think the writing of a book is a very linear process. I'm going to come up with an idea. I'm going to research. I'm going to make an outline and maybe put it in a book proposal. And then I'll write the draft,” explains Anne.
“So the question I asked people was how closely did your outline match the finished draft? I think six per cent had the exact same outline that they started with.”
Most people make minor changes, and a quarter or a third of the people, like Anne, made major changes to their outline in the process of writing.
She observes: “This is such an important fact, because I think people get wedded to that outline, especially if they've stuck it on a book proposal and feel like that's what they sold their book based on.”
However, writers can outgrow their outlines as they write. Concludes Anne: “They need to understand it’s more important to serve the reader with a better book than to cling to an outline that isn’t quite working anymore.”
Published Author has a range of inexpensive approaches for entrepreneurs ready to begin writing a book or work with a ghostwriter. Contact us for a free consultation and discover how we can help you.