This is a 13-step guide to crafting a book outline that writes your book for you!
You could jump off a bridge without a bungee cord, but unless it’s a small bridge, well, you’re dead meat.
You need an outline to write your non-fiction book.
It’s your lifeline.
A completed book outline is your saving grace, your ace in the hole, your best friend while writing.
- A good outline writes your book for you.
- A good outline eliminates writer’s block.
- A good outline ensures you actually write a great book.
I am a big proponent of writing a great outline. That way you can avoid hitting a roadblock. There is no worse feeling than writing yourself into a corner but if you’ve figured it all out in the outline then you won’t have that problem. —Michael Showalter
Yes, but Do I Really Need a Book Outline?
Still not convinced?
I can hear you thinking it…
Do I really need a book outline? I don’t have time… I just want to get this book out there!
Yes, you do. If your goal is to write a well-thought out book, you absolutely need a well-researched and thorough outline.
If you don’t know where you’re going with the book, this could happen:
- You’ll stop writing before you even get started.
- You’ll write entire sections that don’t end up in the final version. (Honestly, this happens either way, but you reduce its likelihood.)
- You’ll miss important topics that should have been in your book.
- You’ll end up with a completed manuscript that’s a mess.
- Your future readers don’t get the book they need.
So, how do you write an outline you’re happy with?
The 13 Pieces of a Great Book Outline
At each stage in the outline creation process, you’ll think about your book and what you want to say within its pages.
Each step is a little different, but putting it all together brings life to the concepts and ideas floating around in your head.
Here are the steps which we’ll go into detail with in this article.
- Start with Why: Book’s Purpose
- Simply Define Your Target Audience
- Draft Your Thesis
- Consider Title Ideas
- Books to Read/Quote/Reference Within
- Other Links to Reference
- Quotes to Add
- How Will I Sell the Book?
- Brainstorm Possible Topics to be Sorted
- Chapter by Chapter
- Back Matter
Let’s jump right into it and learn how to write a great book outline.
*Here is the last book outline template you will ever need. (Link to free downloadable Google Doc)
Download, follow along, and get ready to see your idea for a book materialize before your very eyes!
1) Start with Why
Start with why. If you don’t know the purpose of your book before you write it, no one but your mother will read it.
Many people I’ve worked with think they know what their book is and why they are writing it, but it’s only when I pose questions they connect the dots.
Here are some examples of questions I ask my authors:
- Why are you writing this book? (This question gets to the core of your book’s purpose, and can help set reasonable expectations for the success of the book. If you are writing your first book because you want to be a NY Times bestseller, then you may need to rethink your goals).
- What inspired you to write this book?
- You have the completed book in your hands, who are you going to give it to and why? (This question helps define your why, but also closely relates to your target audience, which is the next step.)
- What is the primary message or theme you want to convey through your writing?
- What is unique about your book idea?
- What emotions or feelings do you want your readers to experience while reading your book, and why are these important?
- What do you want readers to remember most about your book, and why do you believe it is important?
- What is the last call to action in your book?
If you have a strong why to lead you, it will be much easier to finish your draft.
Answer these questions as you create your outline. Clearly define the purpose of your book by starting with why, and your book will write itself.
2) Simply Define Your Target Audience
Focus on identifying your target audience, communicating an authentic message that they want and need and project yourself as an “expert” within your niche. —Kim Garst
Who are you writing for, and what problem do they have?
Defining your target audience need not be anymore complicated than that.
You can’t write for everyone.
If you write a book that everyone should read, no one will read it. This time, not even your mother will pick it up.
Sure, crazy aunt Suzy will give it a read, but that isn’t helping you.
Define your target audience in brief.
Here are some examples of a well-defined target audience:
- Female entrepreneurs aged 25-40 who want to start and grow their own successful online business.
- Working parents aged 30-45 who are looking for healthy and easy meal solutions for their families and don’t have time to cook every day.
- Newlyweds aged 25-35 who want to learn how to build a strong and lasting marriage and family and aren’t sure how to communicate effectively.
Sometimes, authors overcomplicate this and feel stuck.
They just don’t know who they are writing to and aren’t sure how to define their audience.
You could define demographics (characteristics such as age, gender, education level, income, and location), and psychographics (personality, values, interests, and lifestyle) but it’s unnecessary to dive this deep.
The easiest way to define your target audience, if you’ve already been creating to some extent, is to ask yourself, who is already reading what I’m writing, and what am I helping them with?
Likely, those who already engage with your content are the people you are writing for.
And if you don’t have an audience yet, go back to the key question: who am I writing for and what problem am I helping them solve?
Defining target audience is key because it gives you a persona you can speak to in your writing, but it needn’t get too complicated either.
3) Draft Your Thesis
A great thesis develops over time as you are writing. However, starting with a clear and concise (1-3 sentences) description of what your book will accomplish and how is helpful.
Based on your book’s purpose and target audience, identify the principal argument in your book and tell how the evidence and research you’ve gathered will accomplish the goals you have for the reader.
This should be a clear and concise statement expressing your main idea.
Make it specific and relevant to the person you want to help.
Here are a few examples:
- “This book argues that the key to successful entrepreneurship is not just about developing a great product or service, but also about building a strong and sustainable business model that can adapt to changing market conditions. It focuses on the value of instilling strong leadership values in order to stay adaptable and anti-fragile.”
- “Through an examination of successful companies and leaders, this book explores the importance of effective communication, collaboration, and empathy in building and sustaining high-performing teams.”
- “This book examines the changing nature of work in the digital age, and argues that embracing flexible and remote work arrangements can lead to greater productivity, creativity, and work-life balance.”
And introverts, close your eyes, but a brilliant strategy to work on your thesis is to practice discussing it with friends.
When they ask what you’re up to, tell them you’re writing a book. When they inevitably ask what it’s about, share a vision of your thesis.
Based on their reactions, you may need to edit for clarity or add something you’ve missed.
Talking about your ideas is a great way to ensure you know what you’re talking about. Not only do you get immediate feedback on the book’s potential, you gain insights to what could make it better through this live and sometimes painful feedback.
I’ve had to work on this over the years, as I used to prefer to keep my ideas close to my chest.
Now, when someone asks what I’m working on, I usually share my latest ideas to see what people think.
Sometimes I get a blank stare or a kind nod. Other times I get a strong response and they say, “You have to write that book, Jordan!”
Not everyone has to like your thesis, but when you stumble upon a good idea, you’ll feel a palpable energy from others which serves as extra motivation to get the book out there.
It is by teaching that we teach ourselves, by relating that we observe, by affirming that we examine, by showing that we look, by writing that we think, by pumping that we draw water into the well. —Henri Frederic Amiel
4) Consider Title Ideas
When creating an outline, the most fun and engaging part is working on the title. I love creating a variety of book title ideas and playing with words.
A fun and useful tool is Headline Studio at Coschedule.
Experiment with a short main title of 3-4 words. The main title should be catchy AND immediately clear what type of book it is.
Then, add a subtitle explaining what the reader will gain from reading and include relevant keywords that will show up in search.
Here are some title ideas I love. Steal them for yourself as a starting point if you want:
- “The Human Edge: How Embracing Empathy and Diversity Can Drive Innovation and Growth”
- “The Power of Purpose: How Aligning Your Business Goals with Your Values Can Drive Success and Social Impact”
- “The Future of Work: Embracing Digital Transformation and Flexible Work Arrangements”
- “Leading from Within: How Personal Development and Mindfulness Can Enhance Your Leadership and Organizational Effectiveness”
- “The Lean Entrepreneur: Applying Lean Principles to Start, Test, and Scale Your Business Idea”
Your title is an emerging process as you develop your book; it will change while you write and edit. Keep coming back to it and eventually, the perfect title will click.
5) Books to Read/Quote/Reference Within
“Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.” — William Faulkner
What other books address your thesis?
Amazon is a great place to do market research because they list every book imaginable with immediate feedback in the form of reviews.
Make a list of relevant books you’ll read before writing your book.
Mark Batterson, my favorite author, read thousands of books before he wrote his first. His writing is crisp, fine tuned, and utterly delightful to read.
I know, you might say, Jordan, “I can’t possibly read ten books before I write mine.”
No, actually, you should probably read 1000 like Mark, but that might not be workable.
Before writing any of my books, I read at least ten books in the genre that answer similar questions.
It takes time, but it’s time well spent. I learn new methods, get introduced to new research, and learn that there is still a lot I don’t know about the subject.
I learn what others have said so I am not repeating content.
The good news is this is an easy way to put yourself ahead of the game.
When people inevitably ask you, “Is your book similar to popular book X?” You can respond with a clear and concise reason your book is different and better.
Great writers read.
6) Other Links to Reference
Beyond books, it’s a great idea to look at what else is out there across the internet.
Look at many sources to inspire ideas for your book:
- YouTube channels.
- Do a Google search for relevant questions and see what answers other people are giving on your subject.
- Look at relevant studies and research supporting your claims.
- Look at data and surveys within your niche.
Make this list as long or as short as you need, just don’t get too trapped into the rabbit hole as there is a lot out there.
Consider what someone who’s read all the research and data might need; how will your book be the key to their success?
7) Quotes to Add
The seventh step should only take about twenty to thirty minutes. It’s the easiest step on the list and the most fun.
If your brain needs a break, do this one.
You can, and should, use quotes in your book.
But definitely check book copyright issues first to familiarize yourself.
Google search relevant quotes you can add to your book from other books.
Add quotes that inspire, motivate, or otherwise increase the value of your content. Don’t add quotes just to add quotes, and steer clear of adding too many popular quotes that savvy readers will expect.
Make sure any quotes you add into your book are attributed.
8) How Will I Sell the Book?
Would you agree there’s no point writing a book no one will read?
If you’re putting all this time and effort into writing a book, you’re more than likely hoping to sell a few copies
Before you brainstorm possible topics, it’s important to answer this marketing question:
How will I sell my book?
Will you sell it on your website? Offer it as a free lead magnet to engage with potential clients? Will you order 1000 copies and knock on doors?
This section need not include a full-blown marketing plan, but it’s extremely important to think about your marketing efforts as early as possible.
Here are a few examples of specific ideas to get your mind churning before you have a book in hand and aren’t sure what to do next.
To market my book I will:
- Host a virtual book launch: Consider hosting a virtual book launch where you connect with readers and fans from around the world. You could invite guest speakers, conduct a Q&A, and offer special promotions or giveaways to attendees.
- Partner with influencers: Consider partnering with influencers in your target audience to help promote your book. This could involve sending them an advance copy of your book and asking them to share their thoughts and reviews on social media or on their blog or podcast. And yes, you might have to pay them upfront, and this isn’t a bad idea.
- Create a podcast or YouTube channel: Consider creating a podcast or YouTube channel that explores the themes and topics covered in your book. This can help you build an audience and generate interest in your book, while also providing valuable content to listeners.
- Offer a free resource: Consider offering your entire book or a portion as a free resource. This can help attract potential readers and build your email list.
- Create an online course or workshop: Consider creating an online course or workshop that dives deeper into the topics covered in your book. This can provide additional value to readers and help establish you as an authority on the subject. This is great for readers who want to go in depth on the subject.
- Host a book club: Consider hosting a book club for readers to discuss your book and its themes. This can help generate buzz and interest in your book, while also providing a valuable community for readers.
- Create social media challenges: Consider creating social media challenges that encourage readers to share their thoughts and experiences related to your book. This can help create engagement and build a community around your book.
Think about what you will realistically be able to accomplish for your book and start jotting those ideas down now so you can expand on them as you write.
9) Brainstorm Possible Topics to be Sorted
This is your time to idea dump.
You’ve done the research, and it filled your mind with all kinds of viable ideas.
Get them all out in the form of bullets.
List every problem and solution, question and answer, and topic you want to discuss. List any personal stories you have relating to the subject that might serve as the story examples throughout.
Continue to add to the list until you’ve exhausted all of your ideas. You’ll sort later so get the ideas out with impunity.
Here are a few excellent ways to brainstorm your book outline with alacrity if you are feeling stuck or need help:
- Use ChatGPT for brainstorming: With AI writing assistants growing in their functionality, you can easily generate great ideas with the use of a few prompts. Don’t write your entire book with ChatGPT, but use it to generate great ideas and other avenues to research further.
- Use Amazon: expanding on step #5 above, look at the competition from other books you’ve found on Amazon and what readers like and dislike. Read reviews from 2 to 4 stars as you’ll find the best information here about what readers need from you.
- Consider all questions by looking at sites like Quora: Think about what questions you still have and what questions people need answered.
- Mind Mapping: Start by writing the principal topic or idea in the center of a page and then add branches with related ideas that come to mind. This technique can help you visualize the connections between original concepts and generate more ideas.
- Brainstorming Sessions: Gather a group of people with different perspectives and brainstorm ideas together. This can be a fun and collaborative way to generate book ideas and get feedback.
Brainstorming for a book outline is best done over several days.
Don’t stop until you’ve gotten everything out.
The introduction is the toughest part of writing a book.
In fact, if you don’t agonize over the introduction, you’re doing something wrong.
This is your chance to catch the reader’s interest and attention and spur them forward to reading the rest of your book.
You’ll likely write your introduction, and then once you complete your book you’ll come back to it and rewrite most of it.
It’s normal to struggle with the introduction. This is expected because you want your intro to tell readers what they can expect from now on, and for this to be accurate, you need to have the book written.
For the book outline, the key element is deciding which ideas you want to start with.
What story are you going to tell to draw readers in and show them you are an expert in the subject?
Here are a few parts of a great intro. Looking back through your major list if ideas cut and paste into the relevant sections here. (Don’t copy; cut, so that you’re clearing content not just creating more of a mess):
- Hook: Start with an attention-grabbing statement or anecdote that relates to the topic. In the introduction, if your hook can be referenced later in the book as a callback, it will add strength to your writing.
- Background Information: Provide some background information on the topic to give context and set the stage for the discussion.
- Thesis Statement: Clearly state your current version of your thesis.
- Scope and Limitations: Define the scope of the book, including what will be covered and what won’t be covered. Discuss any limitations or constraints that may affect the research or analysis.
- Significance: Discuss why the topic is significant, and why it’s important to research or analyze it. Highlight any potential implications or applications of the research or analysis.
- What the Reader Can Expect: Summarize the book’s structure, including a summary of each chapter.
- Call to Read: Inspire them to read by giving an example of what their life might look like when they implement your suggestions.
The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires. –William A. Ward
11) Chapter by Chapter Rundown
Jim: When did you need that rundown by?
Charles: As soon as possible.
Charles: Just get it right.
Jim: Yeah. Gotcha. Of course. I’m gonna dive in. To the rundown. I’ll be exhausted ’cause it’s like a triathlon —The Office
We are finally here!
At step 11, we are starting on the chapter by chapter outline.
This is the process most would-be authors start on, only to inevitably fail to write anything.
If you’ve come this far and followed my process, this part will now be a piece of cake.
I’ve found on every occasion that outlining each chapter comes much more easily after the book’s purpose and marketing angles are defined as the content must follow from there.
Now that you have a huge list of topics/questions/pain points etc., it’s time to sort that list into chapters.
This sorting process is challenging in its own way, but much easier than starting with outlining your idea and then heading straight into a chapter by chapter outline.
Look through your list and pick out the major themes. If you’re writing a book on success in business, some of the major themes might be:
- Overcoming procrastination and laziness.
- Understanding how people are different and need unique solutions to individual problems.
- The most surprising aspects of running a multimillion dollar business and what they need to know.
These major themes will become your chapter titles.
Start by going through and brainstorming a solid list of chapter titles based on your content (about 8-12 for a 40k word book).
Now, it’s time to add a bit more to each.
Typically, in nonfiction books, it’s best to start each chapter with a short hook in the form of a story, similar to the introduction.
Then, for each chapter, create 4-5 headlines within each chapter and then add bullet points underneath each from the brainstormed list (and add new ones as you think of them).
Each point needn’t contain more than a sentence or two as the headline should be able to stand alone.
Make the headlines engaging and focused expounding the theme of the chapter.
To write highly organized and easy-to-read chapters, think about the following questions, in order:
- What did I learn about this topic in my own lived experience? (And want to share)
- Why should the reader care?
- What impedes implementation?
- How does the reader need to be convinced (and how do I help them believe?)
- If they follow the advice in the chapter, what will improve in their lives?
Let’s take the topic of procrastination and see how we might fill it out:
- Introduction (this needs no headline): My personal story about struggling with procrastination when I failed to submit a major project in time and ended up failing my class.
- The Painful Cost of Procrastination: Discuss the negative consequences of procrastination on the reader’s personal and professional life. Add additional personal anecdotes of missed opportunities and regrets like how I failed another class because I didn’t learn the first time.
- Truly Understanding Procrastination: Explore the root causes of procrastination, such as fear, perfectionism, and lack of motivation. Provide practical exercises and questions to help readers identify their own reasons for procrastination. Talk about how the time my mentor pulled me to the side and exposed my problem with laziness.
- Overcoming Procrastination: The Best Strategies and Tools: Introduce various strategies and tools to overcome procrastination, such as setting goals, breaking tasks into smaller pieces, and using time management techniques. Provide tips and examples on how to implement these strategies in daily life. Share that I started making my bed every day to help overcome procrastination by starting strong.
- Here is What a Life Without Procrastination Looks Like: Fewer distractions, increased focus, and confidence. Provide practical exercises and strategies to help readers reach these goals. Talk about how much better my own life is now that I’ve removed the burden of procrastination.
It may take several iterations to get each chapter right, and likely you are missing a ton of ideas and information.
This is okay.
Part of the chapter by chapter outlining process is exposing what’s missing.
Highlight these missing sections and move on. You can fill them out later as you write.
My pet peeve with books is getting to the conclusion and then having to read a brand-new story.
I’m done. I got to the end. Don’t make me start over with something new.
Once the reader gets to the conclusion, tie up everything in a nice little bow.
Give them a short list of major takeaways.
If the reader only reads my conclusion, what’s the best advice I could give them here?
An easy-to-follow outline for the conclusion:
- Reiterate the purpose of the book
- List a few major takeaways
- Conclude with an inspiring hope of what you want the reader’s life to look like now that they’ve read your words.
13) Back Matter
What types of content do you want in the back of the book?
Think about the types of pages you want to add. These are easy to add to the book at any time, but important to add to your outline so you don’t forget.
- About the author.
- Clear call to action to point them to your website to download a freebie by signing up to your email list.
- Thanks for reading.
- Call to review the book wherever they found it.
- List of previous works.
- Preview of your next book.
You don’t want to stuff all of these pages into the back of your book.
No one will read them.
Think about what’s most important and cut the rest from your list.
Don’t Finish Your Outline: START Writing
Completing the 13-step process I’ve outlined is your best chance to get the book done.
But don’t finish the book outline.
Get it to 70% done and then write the actual book.
Keep your outline opened as a separate tab and use it while you write. Add to it as you see fit or if you need a break from writing.
Follow these steps, and you’ll have a 5000 word powerhouse of a book outline.
Authors everywhere will be jealous.
Good luck with your book,
PS: If you made it this far, congrats. If all this is too much, hire me to do it for you.