Your life is busy and sometimes you want all the (book-related) goods in one place. We heard you – and we listened!
Chandler Bolt created this all-in-one exclusive training for serious soon-to-be-authors. If you want to learn how to outline and everything else about the book writing process, make sure to sign up to save your spot!
Because if you want to learn how to outline, you may as well get as much information as you can right away. Trust us, it’ll make your writing process that much easier.
What is a Book Outline?
A book outline is a roadmap or blueprint for your story. It tells you where you need to go and when in chronilogical order.
It’s easy to see this term and wonder exactly what that means. Is it a bullet list of topics for your book? Is it a chapter by chapter overview written in paragraphs?
No matter how you write an outline, the purpose is the same.
Think of it as a GPS of sorts but instead of giving you driving directions, your outline will give you writing directions.
Why Should I Write a Book Outline?
No matter which type of book outline you choose, planning before you write has many benefits. It’s not just about getting your thoughts on the paper, either. It’s about so much more than the actual writing.
ensure you can focus on the quality of your writing instead of what to write
You don’t need to spend huge amounts of time learning how to outline a book, but some (mostly painless!) prep before writing will be time well-spent since you won’t be spinning your wheels by staring at the blank screen of death.
When you start with a plan, you’ll unconsciously make connections and think about your draft, even when you’re not actively writing.
Mentally writing in the shower is one of the perks of outlining, because it will get your thoughts percolating. Be sure to keep paper and pens scattered about so you can capture your brilliance the minute it bubbles up, rather than letting all those ideas fade away.
Once you have a plan to write your book in outline form, you’ll be better able to put these thoughts to paper and compose your chapters when you do sit down to write.
And I have some good news: there’s no “right” way to outline. Each writer will have their own process that’s personal to them.
Keep reading for tips on how to outline different ways. If one of these exact methods doesn’t strike a chord with you, you can combine methods to create your own way that works best for your unique book.
Are you writing a fiction or non-fiction book? Depending on which you’re working on, the outlining process may look be different.
Thankfully, there are plenty of relevant tips you can apply in the section about outlining a non-fiction book. Likewise, even if you’re writing non-fiction, the section on how to write a fiction outline can help spark some ideas for your process, so we recommend authors of all types of books read the full list.
How to Write a Nonfiction Book Outline
Most non-fiction authors find outlines useful due to the nature of their books. Generally, works of non-fiction require research and citation of sources (although many novels require their own research!).
An outline can help organize your research so it doesn’t overwhelm you, plus your outline will help you create the best structure for your finished book.
These are some of the beneficial methods we recommend for you.
#1 – Mindmap + Book Outline
This is the main method of outlining that we teach in Self-Publishing School. The mindmap method requires you to create a brain dump based on your book’s topic. Write your topic in the center of a piece of paper, then use lines and words to draw as many connections as you can.
It doesn’t need to make perfect sense from the get-go—the goal is free-form thinking to get all of your ideas out of your head and onto the page.
You’ll start to notice connections between different categories of information. This makes it easier to spot the relevant “book-worthy” ideas. Then you can pluck those ideas out of your mindmap and put them into a cohesive book outline.
We also recommend doing a mindmap for each chapter you select from your original mindmap. It will help you structure your entire book chapter by chapter.
Fun, and so easy—we told you this would be (mostly) painless!
At Self-Publishing School, we encourage students to make a mess with their mindmap. Regardless of what your mind map looks like in the end, it is an essential element to your book writing process.
This mind map will be the jumping off point for you to begin your outline. In this brief video, Chandler explains how to turn your mindmap into an outline:
#2 – Simple Book Outline
A simple book outline is just as it sounds; keep it basic and brief. Start with the title. Don’t get too hung up on the perfect title at this stage of the process; you just want to come up with a good-for-now placeholder.
You can always change the title later—in fact, you probably will—but starting with some kind of title gives you a better idea of where you want your book to go.
Plus, outlining your book this way jump-starts the creative process.
Next, you’ll list all of the key points that cover your book’s overall theme and message. You’ll use these key points to generate your notes. Later, you’ll flesh out these notes to draft your book chapters.
#3 – Chapter-by-Chapter Book Outline
Your chapter-by-chapter book outline is a pumped-up version of the simple book outline.
To get started, first create a complete chapter list. With each chapter listed as a heading, you’ll later add material or shift chapters around as the draft evolves.
Create a working title for each chapter, and list them in a logical order. After that, you’ll fill in the key points of each chapter.
Finally, you’ll link your resources as they would appear in each chapter, including books, interviews, and Web links.
Here’s a great example of a chapter-by-chapter nonfiction book outline completed with bullet lists:
#4 – Sketch Your Book Outline
Perhaps you find the idea of a written outline confining. That’s OK — there’s another option which might appeal to your artistic side.
If you like being uber-organized, then the writing softwareScrivener might appeal to you. Their book outline program allows you to upload your research, organize it by moving it around, and filing it into folders.
Like many writing software programs, it does have a fairly extensive learning curve, which can be a major downside—especially if you tend to procrastinate and really want to get your book published quickly.
However, some writers say it revolutionized their organizational process for longer works.
Your goal with the Basic Document format is to use a Word or Excel table to give structure to your theme. Create a table and organize and summarize your key points and plot.
You’ll then create a separate section for characters and themes, and an additional section with relevant research.
#2 – Post-It Wall
This is for the creative mind, and another method we teach in Self-Publishing School. All you need is a blank wall and a box of Post-It notes. Carry a pad of Post-Its with you wherever you go, and doodle your book on the fly.
Write your ideas and inspiration on your Post-Its when the mood strikes you.
Next, affix the Post-Its containing words, snippets, doodles, and phrases to the wall. After a week of this exercise, organize these words into novel outline form. Voila—simple, effective, creative!
#3 – The Snowflake Method
The Snowflake Method was created by fiction writing coach Randy Ingermanson based on the notion, “Good fiction doesn’t just happen. It’s designed.”
The process of the snowflake method focuses on starting small, then expanding. For example, you’d start with one line from your book, then add a paragraph, then add a chapter.
Since the snowflake method is fairly detailed and based on scientific theory, Randy’s article is worth a read so you can review the detailed steps involved in this outlining method.
#4 – The Skeletal Outline
If you’ve ever written a term paper or thesis, then you’re probably familiar with the skeletal outline. You’ll lay out your narrative points in the order they’ll appear in your story, which involves a broad 7-step story arch.
This gives you a big picture idea of the flow of your story, so you can adjust your story and add subplots for maximum impact.
#5 – Novel Outline Template
Why reinvent the wheel? If you’re impatient to jump right into the fun part—writing!—or you aren’t sure exactly how to format your novel outline, then a pre-formatted template outline might be your saving grace.
A fill-in-the-blank novel outline can help you develop your plot, characters, and ideas without getting bogged down with the notion of striving for “proper” outline form.
#6 – The Reverse Outline
Sometimes looking at the problem from a different angle can give you the answer to the question. The same applies to outlining.
Reverse outlining is exactly what it sounds like: Write down how your novel ends. Then once you know the ending, outline backward to get to that happy (Or sad? You’re the author!) ending.
This method often helps if you want to plant seeds and have a lot of shocking foreshadowing moments.
Authors like George R.R. Martin have to use these methods in order to make sure the plot lines up.
Here’s the takeaway:No matter which option you choose, ultimately, you’ll write faster and better with a book outline. If one way doesn’t work well for you, then experiment and try another. Remember, your goal is a finished manuscript, not the gold medal for “Most Perfect Book Outline.”
Discover what works best for you and you’ll be one step closer to a finished book.
Chandler is the host of the Self Publishing School podcast & the author of 6 bestselling books including his most recent book titled “Published.”. He’s also the founder & CEO of Self-Publishing School, the #1 online resource for writing your first book. Self Publishing School made the INC 5000 in 2018 (#2,699) as one of the 5,000 fastest-growing private companies in the US. Through his books, podcast, training videos, and Self-Publishing School, he’s helped thousands of people on their journey to writing their first book.