I remember my first attempt at writing a book. I decided against outlining my nonfiction book (or downloading a template for that matter) since I’ve already got the idea swirling and fully realized in my head. So I drove straight into it. But one decade and sixty thousand words later, that story is no closer to completion than it was during the first few years.
Then came the end of 2022, and a series of personal incidents inspired me to try and write another book. This time I decided to try and make an outline. It took me a few days — time that I could have used writing the actual book, my old outline-hating self grated, but in the end it was all worth it. I had fewer downtimes. I could skip chapters that I didn’t feel like writing at the moment, safe in the knowledge that I will not forget what I had skimmed. The whole process went a lot smoother than all of my previous attempts.
Right now that nonfiction book’s first draft is about 90% complete, and I’ve since added more to my outline template to further flesh out my work over the next few drafts.
Using an outline — like everything else about writing — is subjective. But under the right circumstances and frame of mind, writing one for your nonfiction book can become an important and indispensable part of your process. Let’s have a look at how it can help with your writing.
Table of Contents
But first, what’s an outline?
I’m sure most of us have gone through the hardship of preparing an outline back in our high school days. They might have been a necessary evil back then, but this time, as a writer planning your nonfiction book, outlining is an effective tool for crafting your work.
A book outline is a preparatory document created by the writer to plan out the sequence and structure of their book. It is essentially the skeleton of your work, serving as guidance for what you need to fill out with your writing. It also answers a few crucial questions that every author should ideally ask themselves before attempting to write, like:
What is the point of my book?
What questions do you want to answer with your book, and how do you intend to communicate your answer to the reader? Having a firm grasp of your intentions will give you an idea of how you need to outline your book.
What structure or style should I use?
There are a lot of types of nonfiction books (histories, autobiographies, memoirs, travelogues, academic papers, philosophy books, self-help and manuals, commentary, etc.) and it’s advisable to write your outline according to your book type. For example, histories, academic papers, and autobiographies can benefit from a chapter-by-chapter outline as they tend to be more chronological in nature. Resource, self-help, and list-type books are best outlined by topics and subtopics.
Who am I writing it for?
Knowing your target audience is a vital step in any writing process. Every writer wants to impart knowledge to their readers, but the delivery may fall short if you write with the wrong people in mind. For example, structuring a self-help guide about making friends (that is targeted towards younger readers) like a research paper might not translate well for your chosen audience.
How much research do I need to do to finish my book?
A writer ideally writes about something they’re familiar with, but even the most seasoned writers need to jump into Google once in a while. Having an outline in place makes doing research faster because you already know what to look for.
What are the challenges that I can anticipate in finishing my work?
Laying out your ideas before starting your book has the benefit of making you aware of the potential challenges that you’ll face in writing. Difficult and broad topics, once identified in the outline, can be broken down into manageable pieces over several sections or chapters, if necessary. It’s also better to spot incorrect details or contradictions to your overall message during the planning process, instead of, oh I don’t know, halfway through writing your book.
There’s also the question of what you want to write. Some of us have a clear-cut idea, but others may not be as certain. Leaders Press has a short quiz you can take to help you out with this crucial decision. Spoiler alert: it’s absolutely free.
Benefits of writing an outline for your nonfiction book
George R.R. Martin once said that there are two types of writers: gardeners and architects.
Gardeners, or discovery writers, treat their books like living things: planting the seeds of their ideas, nurturing them, and letting them grow freely in any direction. The gardener tends his garden, even if the direction it’s going happens to be sideways, backwards, or even a complete stop. Martin is a self-proclaimed gardener.
Architects, or outliners, meanwhile, plan out everything before starting to write. Writer-architects need to figure out how big the area is, how many floors there are, how many rooms will take up each floor, and where everything else goes. That way, it makes it easier to fill in the details of the plan.
And look, I don’t want to sound overly critical, but we can immediately see the benefits of outlining our work beforehand by looking at G.R.R.M’s progress in writing A Song of Ice and Fire (It’s been 12 years since the last book, George. TWELVE YEARS.)
But if you’re not aware of who George R. R. Martin is (to which I ask, what manner of rock doth thou resideth beneath?) or if the subject needs more clarity, here are a few proven benefits of outlining your book.
Writing an outline increases productivity
Think of it this way: you’d be more inclined to finish a project if you know where you are currently, where you’re headed, and what’s waiting for you at the end. Having a plan also helps with countering procrastination and writer’s block.
Writing an outline serves as guidance for your process
If you’re on holiday and are planning to travel, you are likely to plan out your route to a destination in advance. Preparing an outline, especially for nonfiction work, is exactly like that. You want to have a general idea of where you’re heading. Plus you can plot out your rest stops as well.
Writing an outline helps with organizing your writing
Not having an outline forces you to write sequentially, and any moment of writer’s block with that setup can set you back days, if not weeks (Believe me, I know.) Having a structured outline template can help you arrange your nonfiction book into manageable sections that you can skip to back and forth if needed. It also helps with presenting your ideas in the most logical way possible. This is particularly evident in outlining nonfiction books like histories and autobiographies.
Writing an outline helps with smoother section and chapter transitions
You know what you’re going to write next if you have an outline, so it makes it easier to connect your current chapter to the next one. It makes for smoother writing on your part and a smoother experience for your readers.
Writing an outline template saves you time
Having a clear outline template means that a good portion of the legwork for writing your nonfiction book is done. You know what you need to write, making the process more efficient, and it can serve as a handy progress tracker.
Writing an outline helps with guiding you to your end goal
Knowing how and where your planned book will end is a key strategy in writing. It helps to think that the outline is a train station, the writing is the train tracks, and completing your book is your destination. It’s easier to travel through pre-laid paths rather than to chug slowly along while waiting for section hands (i.e., also you, the author) to lay down the tracks.
Types of outlines
Most nonfiction books tend to follow a similar formula (this is not by accident); the outline template works like this: The first few chapters present the issue or subject to be covered, introduce an inciting incident, or establish the author’s bona fides. Once that’s done, the middle section expands upon the subject, while the last few chapters circle back to the initial problem and present an answer and summary of everything discussed in the book. It’s a fairly straightforward process and there are several ways to go about creating an outline. Here are some of them:
A standard outline that answers the most pressing questions about your book like how you’ll begin, the major topics you’ll discuss, how you present your ideas, and how the book ends. This is favored by a lot of authors for its, well, simplicity.
This popular outlining technique starts with writing down the core concept of your book and coming up with related subjects and ideas that revolve around your central theme. You can then connect all these ideas at a later time in the most appropriate way you prefer and use them as a jumping-off point for writing your book. There are a lot of free tools available for making mindmaps, but be careful. This type of outlining has the potential side-effect of making the author sink into over-planning or writing too many ideas.
This is a more structured process favored by academics and historians. It involves listing down all planned chapters, including likely titles, accompanied by brief descriptions and further lists of subtopics to be covered. Doing this makes it easier to write chronologically as it inherently organizes the book you’re writing. This type of outline tends to be longer and requires more initial research than the others, though. Even though this type of outline is favored for nonfiction books. keep in mind that this is not for everyone. A lot of times authors tend to develop their ideas as they write, so be mindful of your personal requirements.
I like to call this the “compromise outline.” There are a lot of writer-gardeners out there for their own reasons, which may be because they find the concept of outlines restricting or simply prefer exploring their work instead of planning them. There are times, however, when making an outline is a necessity, and this type of outlining helps with our fellow writer-gardeners’ struggles. It involves putting in a few keywords that cover the general idea of the book that they’re writing, perhaps three to five sections, and then using those as a rough guide for what to write.
Sample nonfiction book outline template
I’ve prepared a simple template for writing your nonfiction book. It’s structured with the intent of giving you, the writer, both guidance on what to put down and freedom on how you want to arrange your planned content.
Here’s a snippet of what’s inside to see if it’s a good fit for you, as well as sample answers to the questions found in the outline template.
Nonfiction Book Outline Template PDF Download
This is what you came for.
You can download our Nonfiction Book Outline Template right here, free of charge.
A few more things to consider after outlining your nonfiction book
Outlining is just one part of the journey. By all means, pop out the champagne once you’ve finished your outline. But you still need to fill it out with actual writing. Remember that YOUR work doesn’t stop here.
Or maybe it does. A lot of us want to call ourselves writers and publish our own books, but let’s face it — we might not have the time to write. Leaders Press offers a variety of services that can help you with every step of your writing journey, from brainstorming and outlining all the way to publishing and marketing. Check out our services to learn more.
And like I said, everything about writing is subjective. There are mountains of advice all over the internet, and your job as a writer, fledgling or otherwise, is to sort through all that and find what works for you. Outlining is just another tool in our arsenal that we can choose to use or discard. But the benefits of outlining your nonfiction book cannot be understated. Personally, I like using it for most of my writing, but it all depends on you.