For some authors, outlining sucks. Do it anyway.
Your outline is the life preserver that will keep you from drowning in the middle of your manuscript.
There are a few authors out there who will tell you that they never outlined their books before they wrote them. Great. They are the Steve Jobses of the writing world. Almost every other nonfiction writer needs an outline. Why? 1. Because you need one as part of a credible book proposal. 2. Because your outline is the life preserver that will keep you from drowning in the middle of your manuscript.
Here are some of the responses (excuses) I’ve heard to my demands for an outline.
- “An outline constricts my creative flow.” Outlining for fiction and sometimes narrative nonfiction is a bit different and if you work too hard at it, yes, it could constrict your creativity. But check out these famous authors’ outlines. For nonfiction, an outline isn’t intended to be absolute. It’s just a guide. Deviate from it if you need to, and don’t let it inhibit you from heading in a direction that feels right in the writing moment. You might discover a fantastic idea that way. But also know that if you deviate from your outline too far, you’re probably writing a different book than you originally intended and you may need to revisit your message or promise.
- “I don’t know what I’m going to write until I’m actually writing it.” If you are writing nonfiction, this had better not be the case. How are you going to create a compelling book proposal without a clear idea and plan for the book? That said, I would not discourage you from doing a fifty page brain dump to help you figure out what you want your book to be and how you think you will develop it. But that won’t be your outline. You’ll need to develop your outline based on what you have discovered.
- “I have an outline. It’s already 100 pages.” That’s not an outline. It’s most of a first draft. You need to take a step back and find your outline within your extensive notes. It’s my belief that an outline longer than twenty-five pages for a typical nonfiction book becomes counterproductive—an excuse to avoid actually writing the book. One time, I had an outline that was fifty pages, but then I had to take it down to 15 before I could refine it and make better decisions about the flow of ideas. As I wrote each chapter, I actually referred to both outlines.
I get it. Some people simply don’t organize their thoughts in this way. Outlining does not come naturally to them. For those people, I recommend that you hire an editor early on to help you develop an outline and avoid having to heavily rework your manuscript multiple times.
Not sure how to go about starting your outline? Below is a list of a few outlining methods. (Note: The outline you use in a proposal will likely be a bit different from the outline you use to guide your writing.)
1. The doubling method: Start with a one-page list of chapters. Build that out into a two-page outline that includes the top three to five topics for each chapter. Build that out into a four-page outline, adding basic supporting points for each subtopic. Build that out into an eight-page outline by including stories, studies, research, and other support. Build that out into a sixteen-page outline by making notes on themes to emphasize in different discussions, connections to make between points, and more detail on the pieces you’ve already included. Sixteen isn’t a magic number. Depending on the length or complexity of your content, you may end up with an outline that is longer or even shorter. You may even stop at eight pages.
2. The brain-dump method: Just get it down, all of the ideas in your head. Just start taking notes on all of the things you think you want to cover. If this is the way your brain works, producing a stream of ideas and thoughts that are hard to organize until you see them on the page, go with it. Once you get it all down, you’ll have to move the pieces around, grouping related ideas, identifying the dominant themes and messages to create an uber-heirarchy that maps the reader’s journey through the book.
3. The straight-on-through method: It’s just like it sounds. Start from the beginning and work straight on through your content, chapter by chapter, in detail, until you get to the end, envisioning each chapter completely and outlining it. Then go back over it carefully, a few times, and check for flow, balance, and appropriate content coverage and depth. Note: This is the method I’ve seen my type A clients use most effectively. Again, go with what works for you.
4. The prose method: If your brain stops working when you see a bulleted or numbered list, try the prose method. This is also probably the best method for narrative nonfiction and is recommended by some agents and editors for nonfiction book proposals. Basically, write a synopsis of each chapter. The length will depend on how you envision the structure of the book. If you are planning on a number of short chapters, describe each in a paragraph or two, hitting all of the primary points in a compelling way and describing how they will be supported and the connections and themes you will integrate into the discussions. For a book of fewer and longer chapters, each chapter will probably require a page of description or more.
These are the outlining methods I’ve seen and used. I would love to hear about any that you like.