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How to Outline a Book in 8 Easy Steps

Shaun Connell
June 23, 2023

Learning how to write a book outline will mean that you can write a better book faster. Without an outline, the writing process is likely going to be disorganized, overwhelming, and frustrating.
After all, writing a book is no small feat. You'll have a lot of information to organize, details to work out, and decisions to make.

Solution Writing a book outline is fairly simple, but you'll want to follow different steps depending on whether it's a narrative book or a nonfiction text.

In this article, we'll take a look at how to write a book outline for novels and narrative nonfiction as well as non-narrative nonfiction.

How to Write a Book Outline-- Fiction and Narrative Nonfiction

If you're writing a narrative story-- whether it stems from your imagination or from real life-- you'll want to follow these eight steps to craft your outline.

  • When you're writing fiction or narrative nonfiction, there are a lot of details to keep in mind.
  • Having an outline will provide you with a map, essentially, that you can follow as you write.

1. Identify the Audience and Genre

The first step is to decide the genre of the book you're writing and the audience you'll be writing it for. Understanding both of these elements will be useful as you continue to build your outline.

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2. Determine the Main Elements

Who are the main characters of your book? Where does the story take place? What are the key plot points and conflicts that unfold in the narrative?

  • At this point, you'll want to consider the message that you're trying to convey with your book.

3. Create Your Broad Structure

Now it's time to start organizing your ideas into an outline. First, create a high-level structure by writing out the topics of each chapter in your book.

book with chapter and leaf written with outline

You'll want to organize these chapters or main sections in a way that flows logically. This will help you further organize the concepts and ideas you include in your book.

4. Develop Plot Points or Subtopics

Now that you have your chapters or main sections outlined, it's time to break each one down further. You can do so by noting plot points, scenes, or subtopics that will be discussed in each section.

  • This is where you can start writing about key ideas, character developments, or significant narrative events that you intend to discuss and explore in your book.

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5. Establish the Chronology of Your Book

Within your chapters, you'll want your plot points to be organized in a way that works with the flow of the story. While there aren't any hard and fast rules here, you'll generally want to keep pacing, progression, and logical flow in mind when establishing a timeline.

6. Develop Your Characters

Character development is a key part of both fiction books and narrative nonfiction books. Take the time to outline who your main characters are, what their motivations are, what they will go through in the course of the story, and what their primary characteristics are.

  • If you're writing a narrative nonfiction book, you'll want to go into greater detail about who the characters involved in the story are.

The research will be key here to ensure that your text is reflective of the actual people that serve as characters in your tale.

7. Note Specific Details

Now you can start to really flesh out each chapter and scene with a greater amount of detail. You can take notes about particularly notable events, actions, settings, actions, and story arcs that you intend to have taken place in each section.

8. Add References or Notes

As you write your outline, there's a good chance that you'll want to take notes about further research you need to conduct. For example, you might jot down the name of a resource you intend to consult, specific topics you want to research further, or any additional details that you plan on including in specific sections.

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How to Write a Book Outline-- Nonfiction

If you're writing a nonfiction book, the steps you'll take to write your outline will be a bit different.

Rather than focusing on fleshing out your characters, settings, plot points, and narrative arcs, you'll want to break down your key arguments into a logical structure that best supports your thesis.

1. Identify the Audience and Purpose

Why are you writing this book? What is your intent-- i.e., what value, knowledge, or information are you trying to give to the reader?

pile of books outside written with outlines

On top of that, who do you expect your audience will be? Are they experts or laypeople? What will their intent be in reading your book?

  • Understanding your purpose and your audience can help you write an outline that is well-suited to the book you plan to write.

2. Outline the Main Topics and Sections

First, you'll want to divide your book into chapters based on the primary topics that you expect to cover. This is the high-level structure that your book will follow.

3. Create Subtopics

Now that you have your main topics break them down further into subtopics. You'll want to determine the key concepts that you plan on exploring in each chapter or section. Essentially, this is where you'll want to outline the primary arguments or concepts that you hope to present in each chapter of your book.

4. Gather Information

Research is key for most nonfiction books. Once you have your topics and subtopics outlined, you can start conducting the necessary research in order to elaborate on and support your main arguments.

  • While you're researching, you'll want to take notes within your outline.
  • Make sure that you record any quotes, sources, or references that you want to include in your book.

Depending on the type of nonfiction book, it might also be standard practice to include footnotes that display which sources you used to find your information.

5. Establish an Organizational Structure

If you haven't already, make sure that your subtopics are arranged in a way that best presents the information. You'll want your book to follow a logical flow rather than feeling choppy and all over the place.

It's worth taking the time to think about the best order for presenting your material, and how you sequence information can greatly impact reader response to a text and ease of comprehension.

6. Develop Subtopics

Once you have everything in order, it's time to flesh out the details of your subtopic. You'll want to outline the main points you're planning on touching upon within each subtopic, including any evidence, examples, or case studies that will help support your ideas.

Within each subtopic, you'll also want to make sure that you maintain a logical flow of information. As you get deeper into the ideas in your book, it's a good idea to frequently step back and remind yourself of the overall objective of your text. You'll want to make sure that all of the information you include ultimately contributes to your thesis.

7. Consider Additional Elements

In many cases, nonfiction books can be enhanced by the inclusion of additional elements. You might find that illustrations, charts, diagrams, graphs, or other visuals help communicate your points.

  • As you write your outline, think about where visuals would be useful in your book. Note their placement in your outline.

8. Outline Your Introduction and Conclusion

Finally, it's time to draft the introduction and conclusion of your nonfiction book.

In the introduction, you'll want to focus on giving an overview of the topic and the purpose of your book. This is where you can make it clear what your objective or thesis is and explain why it's relevant. The introduction is your chance to make a good first impression and hook the reader, so you'll want to make sure it's engaging to your target audience.

The conclusion is a place where you can provide a sense of closure while reinforcing your thesis and summarizing the book's most relevant points.

Why Bother Writing a Book Outline?

If you're eager to get started on your book, you might be wondering whether it's really worth the time and energy to write an outline.

  • The answer is yes.
  • It is definitely worth the time and energy to write an outline.

Writing a book is a lofty endeavor. Many people begin and don't finish. One of the greatest tools you have to prevent this outcome is creating an organization and structure that you can keep coming back to.

If you're not convinced, check out some of the pretty impressive benefits of creating an outline for your next book.

Save Time

Writing a book is going to take some time, no question about it. At the same time, you want to save yourself from the ranks of people that begin and never finish that novel they've been working on.

If you don't have any structure to guide your writing process, writing a book is going to take a lot longer. You'll end up going down avenues that actually aren't relevant to the topic, getting stuck on how to proceed, or even dealing with writer's block.

Having a book outline will save you time-- no question about it. Rather than trying to think structurally and creatively at the same time, writing an outline first allows you to separate these two very different processes.

Providing a Map

When you create an outline, you're basically creating a roadmap you can follow as you go through the writing process. You'll be able to keep an eye on the big picture the whole time, no matter how deep you're getting into the details.

  • Outlines help you keep a logical flow in your story or book.

When you take the time to create your structure before you write, it allows you to get as creative as you want within each defined section without straying from your primary objective.

Receive Feedback Early On

Having an outline provides you with a structure through which you can review and revise your work. Beyond that, you can share your outline with other writers, friends, or interested parties to get their feedback. Before you've taken the time to craft an entire novel, an outline lets you ensure that your structure is solid and your story is consistent before you get too deep into it.

If you do notice that there are issues that need to be worked out, moving around the elements of an outline are no problem at all. Restructuring a book once you've already written it, though-- that's a much more demanding task.

Get Focused

When you write an outline for your book, it helps you clarify the purpose, theme, and main points. This means that you can construct a clear sense of what your goals are, which will help you maintain focus as you go through the writing process.

  • Because of their length and complexity, it's easy for ideas to start getting diluted or scattered as you write a book.

Having an outline helps you keep coming back to the main points you're making and your primary objective in writing.

Stay On Point

If you're writing an entire book in free form with no structure, you're probably going to meander all over the place. Unless you are remarkably mentally structured as a person, it's hard to stay on point without an outline.

Pitching and Publishing

Are you planning on trying to get your book published through traditional avenues? If so, having a solid outline is going to be an absolutely essential part of the process. Publishers are going to want to know that you have a crystal-clear vision of the finished product you're planning on creating.

Write Better Books

Finally, another benefit of writing outlines for books before you start typing away is that you'll write better.

That's right. Having an outline will help you create a smooth flow of information for your readers. If your text is clunky and the transitions are jarring, your audience is going to be a lot more likely to bounce off it entirely.

Starting off with an organizational structure will help you write better books-- it's as simple as that.

Ready to Make Money Writing?

Whether you're learning how to write a book outline in order to work on your passion project or because you got a gig as a ghost writer, this is a valuable skill that any writer can benefit from. Outlines can help you organize your ideas in a sequential manner and provide a foundation as you begin the writing process.

As you continue to hone your writing skills, you might be wondering whether there are any opportunities to earn an income from writing. Is it possible to turn your passion into a paycheck?

  • The answer is: yes! As a freelance writer, you can operate your own business and make money writing for clients in a wide variety of industries.

Your next question is likely, "Where can I find these clients?"

Why, the Freelance Writing Jobs board, of course! If you're ready to start making money with your writing, you're in the right place. Head over to our jobs board for fresh posts every day from high-paying clients.

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Written By:
Shaun Connell
Shaun Connell has spent his entire career either working as a freelance writer or hiring freelance writers for his many successful publications. Shaun has learned the exact tricks of the trade to hire the perfect writer for almost any niche.

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