When a first-time author sits down to outline a nonfiction book, the exercise is often a quick one — nothing more than sketching out a high-level table of contents. Unfortunately, that approach is insufficient and results in wasted time and effort. And all too often, it’s why authors suffer from the dreaded writer’s block. In this article, I’m going to walk you through an incredibly effective method you can use to outline a nonfiction book — your nonfiction book!
“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I’ll spend the first four sharpening the axe.”
When writing a book, there are two kinds of preparatory work to you. The first kind of prep is strategic — getting clear on your goals, whom you’re writing for, the journey you’ll take them on, and narrowing in on your book’s central question and your answer to it. I’m going to assume you’ve done that strategic prep — if you haven’t, check out my previous articles on book strategy. Now it’s time to get tactical and figure out how you’re going to execute that book strategy. You need a roadmap, an action plan. You need a blueprint.
“What’s a book blueprint?” you ask?
A book blueprint. It’s exactly how it sounds. Think of it this way. A builder has architectural drawings. A football team has a game plan. And an author? An author has a book blueprint. Well…they should. You should.
The concept of a book blueprint comes from the 2016 book by the same name, Book Blueprint, written by Grammar Factory founder Jacqui Pretty and it’s foundational to the work we do at Grammar Factory to this day.
There are seven steps to building out your book blueprint when you outline a nonfiction book. Each step leads to the next. Each is designed to help you clarify what you’ll write, give you confidence, and battle the dreaded writer’s block.
I’ll explain each of the seven steps in detail, but first, here they are in order:
1. Collect existing content
2. List out examples
3. Brainstorm big picture topics
4. Brainstorm each chapter
a. Brainstorm chapter topics
b. Flesh out the details of each chapter
5. Brainstorm your book’s introduction
6. Brainstorm your book’s conclusion
7. Transcribe your book blueprint into your text editor
Let’s go through each one.
Step 1: Collect existing content
Now you might be thinking, “What content? I haven’t written anything yet!”
Well, let’s think about that for a moment. This isn’t the first time you thought about your topic, is it? It’s unlikely that this is the first time you’ve written about it either. Now, unless the goal of your book is to build new capabilities, then the book that you’re writing is rooted in your existing expertise. Over time, you’ve no doubt developed a mountain of material on your topic. Maybe it’s written and maybe it’s not.
Now I get it, and don’t misunderstand. You can’t just copy/paste existing content and have it magically transformed into your book manuscript. Believe me, some try that and it’s always a disaster. In fact, you likely won’t even use much of this previously-created content and that’s okay. What you’re gathering here is reference material…source material…content you’ll use as a starting point.
A mountain of valuable content
Let’s consider for a moment, some of the content that you may have already produced — material you may have considered one-offs at the time. Some are obvious: Maybe you’ve written articles for an industry publication or for a blog on your website. Maybe you’ve written white papers or reports. Material like this — published content related to your topic — makes obvious sense to pull out and keep handy.
But consider this also: We all have countless emails in our sent folder…emails that answer questions from our team, service providers, customers. Many of these emails contain incredible information and insights that you might be able to use in your book. What about presentations you’ve made to colleagues, clients, and staff? Marketing brochures, proposals, your website’s product pages? The list goes on.
But wait...there's more...
Everything we’ve covered so far contains mostly written word, but let’s take this a step further: Videos, webinars, media interviews, podcasts. Even if you don’t have your own podcast, perhaps you’ve been a guest on one or two. For these, if you have access to the actual video or audio file, or even a URL, you can easily and inexpensively get them transcribed, using a transcription service like Rev.
By spending a bit of time upfront collecting existing content, you will likely have quite a collection of excellent material to draw from for your book. Keep these items handy, file them where you can easily find and reference them because I assure you, you will come back to them, and it sure beats starting from square one.
But here’s another important reason why we do this when we outline a nonfiction book. Collecting your existing body of work doesn’t just save time; it also helps you maintain consistency. It makes sure that you don’t say one thing in your book while saying something entirely different on your website, for example.
Step 2: List out examples
Step 2 is similar to step one, but it’s less likely that you’ll have actual content created for this. Start a list of examples that you can use in your book. These are often case studies or even stories or anecdotes related to your subject.
You can start this list as a simple Word document or spreadsheet, and what I want you to do is make note of as many relevant and real-life examples that you can think of. Case studies should be examples of how you’ve helped people. Talk about their situation before you worked with them and the outcome you helped them achieve.
Why are case studies important? Well, case studies are like evidence — evidence that what you’re sharing really works. They matter. Reality speaks volumes and it helps people relate. Case studies describe a real situation, a situation that your reader may have faced themselves. That real-world relevance matters.
But what if my business is relatively new?
What if you don’t yet have very many real-life case studies involving your experience and expertise? In that case, fictionalized stories and anecdotes can help support key points or ideas. Or you might describe a case or example of a well-known person or brand can work, even if you weren’t directly involved, if these support your message. Using these third-party stories is perfectly fine as long as you don’t pretend that you were involved.
Now, what you don’t need to do at this stage is write all of these examples out. That would be a waste of time because you’re unlikely to use many of them. Just describe them in a line or two, include just enough detail that you’ll be able to recall the example if and when you decide to use it. This will really help when you get down to writing, particularly in your second pass as you’re rounding out your manuscript and adding supporting content. Again, keep this list handy and accessible too because you never know when inspiration will strike, and you’ll recall another example that you want to add to the list.
So, you’ve covered and cataloged existing content related to your topic as well as some terrific examples that will help you land your message. Now the next four steps to outline a nonfiction book involve brainstorming — organized brainstorming — and it requires a process.
Step 3: Brainstorm big-picture topics
Step three is to brainstorm big-picture topics. What’s the big picture of your book? The headline, if you will? This, really, is where you truly begin to outline a nonfiction book and develop its foundational structure.
The big picture of your book is its Central Question. In short, the Central Question is the question that your book answers for your reader. It’s the question they have about your topic that prompted them to read your book. Now here’s what I want you to do. Write your Central Question in the center of a big whiteboard or a sheet of butcher paper and draw a big circle around it. Or, if you’re comfortable using mind mapping software, that can be a great solution too.
However, you choose to capture your brainstorming, just ask yourself this question: “What are the major topics you need to cover in your book to answer the central question?” Write each of these major topics in its own circle around your central question, and then connect them to it by drawing a line out to each one.
A solid foundation
Step 3 is important because it ultimately forms the foundation of your book’s structure. A logical structure for your book, makes it easier for your reader to follow your logic and understand your message. It’s easier to digest and we don’t want to make it hard for the reader to understand what you have to say.
Once you feel you’ve captured all the major topics, step back and consider:
- Is there anything missing?
- Is there any duplication or overlap?
- Should anything be grouped together into a single topic?
Next, think about what order makes the most sense for covering these topics, and number them accordingly.
Now take a picture of your whiteboard or pull the butcher paper down and set it aside where you can see it because you’ll be referring back to it throughout the rest of this process.
Step 4: Brainstorm each chapter
Step 4 is the most time-consuming part of building your book blueprint. Because when you outline a nonfiction book, it's important that you take the time to brainstorm each chapter individually.
“I have chapters?” you might be asking? Well, yes you do! Each of the major topics in your big picture brainstorm will be a chapter of your book. So yes — you do have chapters. Well done!
Now, coming back to a point I made in the introduction to this article… This is where many authors stop — at the chapter level. They plan out an outline as nothing more than a glorified table of contents, perhaps with a bullet point or two describing each one. We are not going to stop there. We’re going to detail out every chapter and every subtopic within each one.
Does that sound like a lot of work? Well, yeah — it is. But remember this: You’re going to have to get into the detail of every chapter anyway, whether now or when you’re writing. And by doing it now, you’re going to have a game plan for writing. That means you’ll avoid going off on tangents, you’ll avoid writer’s block, and many of the other frustrations that stop would-be authors in their tracks.
A collection of mini books
But here’s a tip: Think of each chapter as a miniature book with its own beginning, middle, and end. Every book has each of these and so should each chapter. Like a book, each chapter will need an introduction at the beginning, a conclusion at the end, and then three to seven subtopics in the middle that cover the topic of the chapter.
Nice and tidy.
For clarity, I’ve broken Step 4 into two phases — 4a: Brainstorm Chapter Topics, and 4b: Flesh Out the Details of Each Chapter. That will make it easier to grasp but realize that you should complete both parts sequentially for each chapter before moving on to the next one.
4a: Brainstorm chapter topics
Starting with a fresh sheet or clean whiteboard, write the topic of chapter one in the middle, just like you did with your central question in the last step.
Now, ask yourself, “What does the reader need to know in order to understand or act on this topic?” And, like you did with the last step, write the subtopic ideas you come up with around the edges and then connect them to your main topic by drawing a line out from it to each one.
When you’re satisfied that you’ve thought of everything, step back:
- Is there anything missing?
- Is there any duplication or overlap?
- Should anything be grouped together into a single topic?
Now, decide what order would make the most sense for covering these subtopics and number them accordingly.
Then, before moving on to brainstorm the next chapter, complete Step 4b for this chapter.
4b: Flesh out the details of each chapter
Start with another fresh page. (Don’t forget to take a picture of your whiteboard before wiping it clean!) Remember how I said that your chapters need an introduction, three to seven subtopics, and a conclusion? Well, there’s a very simple formula for brainstorming the details of each of these that I’m going to share with you. It’s going to make it very easy to flesh out the details of your chapters in a structured way.
For each part of the chapter, you’re going to answer three simple questions:
This structure will ensure that you’re covering everything in the necessary detail so that your reader can understand it and act on it.
Start with the chapter introduction
Write the chapter title at the top of the page and write “Introduction” beneath it. Then consider answer what, why and how as they relate to your chapter’s topic:
- What? What is this chapter about? Here, briefly describe the topic of the chapter in a couple of bullet points.
- Why? Why is this important for the reader to know about? Describe the benefits of them getting it right, as well as the risks of them getting it wrong.
- How? How are you going to cover this topic? Here, just simply list out the subtopics that you’ll cover in this chapter, the ones that you brainstorm in the first part of step four.
Flesh out each subtopic
Next, you need to answer the same three questions for each of the subtopics. So one by one, write out each subtopic and then answer the following:
- What? What is this subtopic about?
- Why? Why is it important for the reader to know about?
- How? How can your reader take action on this subtopic? A bullet point or two should be enough. You want enough detail for each that you can use it as a writing prompt, but that’s about it.
Think through the chapter conclusion
Finally, write “Conclusion”, and beneath it answer the three questions again:
- What? What did this chapter cover? This is likely just a rewording of what you had for the introduction.
- Why? Why was it so important? Again, this is going to be similar to the introduction too.
- How? For the chapter conclusion, “How” will answer a slightly different question. Ask, “How does this chapter’s topic relate to the topic of the next chapter?”
You simply rinse-repeat Step 4 (both 4a and 4b) for each of the other chapter topics from your big picture brainstorm.
Again, this fourth step in creating a book blueprint is the most time consuming, and I’m sure you can see why. But can you see how that simple What, Why, How formula works? It’s a really effective way to plot out the content of your chapters systematically and without too much fuss.
Much of the heavy lifting is done, but there’s still some important work to do. In steps 5 and 6, you’ll brainstorm your book’s introduction and its conclusion.
Step 5: Brainstorm your book’s introduction
Just as the chapters need an introduction. The introductory chapter sets your book’s tone. It sets the context for your reader. It’s the hook; it entices your reader to stick around and read what’s to come. The reason we brainstorm the introduction after the chapter brainstorms is that by now you have a much better sense of all of the content that your book will include, and that makes it easier to write the intro.
In your book’s introduction:
- Describe the problems your reader is facing related to your book’s topic.
- Then, outline the benefits they may experience once those problems are solved.
- Next include an outline of your book’s contents — just a bullet point or two about each chapter to come.
- Then introduce yourself, the author, and tell your reader why you’re the best person to write this book and why they should want to pay attention to what you have to say.
This Author Intro section is a great opportunity to lay out your credentials on the subject: your experience, number of clients served, awards received, successes you’ve had. Don’t be afraid to brag; your reader wants to know that you have credibility so do them a favour of convincing them.
Then finish off your introduction with some closing thoughts: What do you want the reader to really consider before they begin reading? Now you have the makings of your book’s introduction.
If Step 5 is about how to write the introduction in a way that leaves the reader wanting more, then Step 6 is about writing an unforgettable conclusion that motivates them to act.
Step 6: Brainstorm your book’s conclusion
A great conclusion provides closure for your reader. The conclusion also provides one last opportunity to make a strong connection between what you shared or taught in your book and what the reader should do next. It’s a call to action.
Your book’s conclusion should contain three things. They’re really important and impactful when executed well:
- Share a case study describing an example of someone’s journey, applying your solution from start to finish.
- Next, recap in bullet form, the benefits that your reader can expect from adopting your philosophy or implementing your recommendations.
- And finally write down some next steps for your reader. Your book’s conclusion is as vital as all the proceeding pages, a case study, a recap, and next steps.
And that brings us to Step 7, our final step in creating your book blueprint when you outline a nonfiction book.
Step 7: Transcribe your book blueprint into your text editor
With your brainstorming complete, all that’s left is to transcribe and organize everything you’ve sketched out into a text document. This is really the starting point for your manuscript.
Create a new file in your text editing software like Microsoft Word and save it to your hard drive immediately.
On the first page, about two thirds of the way down type the working title of your book, followed by your name on the next line, and then add a page break.
On the next page type “Introduction” and then transcribe all the details you brainstormed for your book’s introduction. When you’re done, add another page break.
Chapter by chapter, starting on a fresh page, type the chapter number followed by the main topic of that chapter at the top of the page. Then type out all of the details you brainstorm for the chapter introduction, the chapter subtopics, and the chapter conclusion.
Finally, again on a new page, type “Conclusion”, followed by all the details that you brainstorm for your book’s conclusion.
Now hit save again and step back and congratulate yourself. You now have the beginnings of your manuscript, your detailed book blueprint. Each time you sit down to write, you can jump into whatever chapter or subtopic you’re feeling inspired to write about, and you’ll be able to get right to it because you know you’ve already done the hard work of thinking it through.
That’s your book blueprint. Now you’re ready to write.
Remember this as you outline a nonfiction book
Now we’ve covered a lot in this article, but I hope you can see how valuable this exercise is and how much easier things will be once you’ve built your book blueprint to outline a nonfiction book.
Creating a book blueprint is pivotal prep time when it comes to authorship and a vital activity when you outline a nonfiction book. It’s organizing expertise, cataloging credentials, it’s making sure we’re flexing all of our muscles. When amplifying our experiences.
A complete and robust book blueprint gives you more than an outline. It also eliminates a major hurdle almost every writer faces at one time or another: writer’s block. Why?
Because you now know what needs to be written — every chapter, every topic, every subtopic. A detailed book blueprint shines light on how your book hangs together logically and structurally. It’s the foundation.
What a great feeling to know that you’ve put in the prep time. Now it’s time. It’s time to write, time to publish and time to grow.