How to Outline a Nonfiction Book

Many writers fear the outline process above all else, it’s tough to know how to outline a nonfiction book. In fact, they’ll commonly avoid even starting their amazing book idea simply because the act of outlining a nonfiction book overwhelms them so much.

But without having an excellent outline, you’ll be hard-pressed to organize your nonfiction book in a way that readers can understand. We shouldn’t avoid what we fear. Many bestselling authors would never dream of starting a nonfiction book without having gone through the outlining process.

There are big benefits if you take the time to outline your book.

The Book Will Be Better

Your book benefits from better organization at a root level. Having to organize and structure on the fly can leave a lot of margin for error, but knowing the important points and subtopics in advance is essential to beginning the new book.

Eliminates Writer’s “Blip”

If you see our other post on how to get over writer’s “block,” you’ll understand why we at Made for Success choose to call it a “blip.”

But nevertheless, having an effective outline for your nonfiction book gives you an easy means of overcoming any pauses you encounter while writing.

More Confidence

The outline is the map that shows you where you’re going. And if you know where you’re going, you can be sure that you’ll have more confidence to get there successfully and swiftly.

Getting Started with your Outline

Hopefully by now you see the importance of having a quality outline for your nonfiction book. While this is important for fictional authors too, this blog will primarily address the process geared best towards nonfiction authors.

While many aspiring authors are in search of a template to get them through their book writing process, it’s best to avoid being too rigid.

Every book is a little bit different, and even though there are some fundamentals that work for most books, you’ll want to start your own process organically.

So how do you create your nonfiction book outline? Here are a few options that the Made for Success team and our best selling authors have found to be particularly successful.

How to Create a Nonfiction Book Outline

There is no one true way to outline your book, and much like having different styles of writing, it’s important to find out which method will work the best for you.

You can even sample a few of them together to help you get the creative juices flowing.

The Traditional Book Outline

Most authors will use a traditional style of nonfiction book outlining, which involves listing things out chapter by chapter, with a short description of the contents of each.

For example, if you were writing a book about the history of cake, it may look like this:

  1. Chapter 1: Why Cake Matters to Us
  2. Chapter 2: The History of Cake
  3. Chapter 3: Cake Through the Ages
  4. Chapter 4: Cake Today

And no, I’m not thinking about cake. Why would you accuse me of that?

Pro: This outlining method can help you effectively list out everything that you want to cover in your nonfiction book.

Con: It can feel a bit chronological, and may make it hard for you to see where every topic fits together.

Traditional outlining for a nonfiction book is a great place to start off.

Web Outline

The web outlining process is kind of like the “spider web” or “mind map.”

You’ll have large topics connected to smaller subtopics. This won’t necessarily tell you how the chapters all fit together, but will give you an idea of the broadest topics to cover.

Pro: Gets every idea on paper and organizes them by importance.

Con: Doesn’t give you a sense of sequence; you won’t be able to tell which chapters come first.

3 Chapter Chunks

The 3 Chapter Chunks method is a bonafide version of the traditional outlining process.

Here, you will plan your chapters in a sort of “sprint” of three chapters at a time. This helps you see how you can cruise through your main ideas and where they’ll naturally transition with each other.

Pro: Gives you an overall sense of flow for the book, along with subject matter.

Con: May require you to have already thought through your topic in-depth.

Pyramid Method

The pyramid method helps you go from big to small and small to big.

In drawing a pyramid, you can start with the most broad idea at the base, and end with the ultimate idea that you want to convey.

This gives you a great visual of how the topics will all fit together, and the hierarchy of importance.

The pyramid method is a great place to start, and used in conjunction with the traditional nonfiction book outlining process.

Pro: Understanding the most important and deepest topics to cover.

Con: Doesn’t necessarily tell you what each chapter will be about.

How do you outline a book?

As mentioned, every book outline is going to be a little bit different. These are only a few of the ideas that we’ve seen the most success with.

It’s important to know that you don’t need to STICK to your outline. The outline is meant to get you started, and it’s expected that you’ll make quick decisions along your writing process.

Get your chapters arranged in a cohesive logical order, and then feel licensed to make modifications along the way as needed.

How many words are in a nonfiction book?

Typical nonfiction books will have a variety of different lengths, but it’s a commonly-held standard that your book should have AT LEAST 10 chapters and 60 pages.

This amounts to roughly 30,000 words minimum, although it’s recommended that you shoot for the 50,000 mark if possible.

How do you start a nonfiction book?

The outlining process should give you a good sense of how you want to begin your book, but it’s important to help the reader understand why they should care and trust you on the topic.

If you have experience that affirms your subject matter expertise, make sure to highlight it. Or if there is a problem in the world that you want to get the reader to care about, make sure you highlight an emotional hook that helps them feel part of the issue.

How long does it take to write a nonfiction book?

That’s a great question! How long do YOU think it will take YOU?

Not to be quippy, but everybody’s life is a little bit different and there will be a variety of different answers to this question.

Some authors could probably whip out a nonfiction book during a long flight, and others may take a year or more.

I think it’s a great idea to shoot for 3-6 months for your book, and adjust your schedule as needed. But take your deadline seriously.

Successful Nonfiction Books

Having a successful nonfiction book, or even a bestseller, starts with having the right outline.

Hopefully one or two of these outlining processes help get your engine running and help you make quick work of your next nonfiction book!

And if you need more help on outlining or organizing your manuscript, please get in touch with us here.