When Should You Write the Outline for Your Nonfiction Book: Before Your First Draft or After?
Earlier in Part 4: Writing a Book for Your Business- Getting Started of this long-form blog series, How to Write a Book for Your Business, I discuss how writing a nonfiction book outline is a solid way to begin the book you are writing for your business.
Determining ahead of time:
- What your book is about (its purpose)
- Which main points you will cover to support and explore the purpose
- Which sub-sections you will use to support, fulfill, and further each of the main points
makes writing the first draft of your book much more like a “fill-in-the-blank” exercise, something you can do in small manageable chunks, and overall, writing the book an easier, less sweaty effort.
For many business owners and entrepreneurs who are writing books to support their business, having such an exoskeleton that you can then fill in with information, research, quotes, facts, tips and suggestions, and anecdotes can make embarking on writing the nonfiction book for your business- and the whole first draft process- much more organized and far less daunting.
After all, unless you’re a trained writer who is accustomed to the act of creating long-form writing projects, starting one can feel a little like you’re standing on a cliff and looking down at where you want to end up, and for most, that’s one long drop down.
Enter the Nonfiction Book Outline
The nonfiction book outline provides a wonderful infrastructure so you only have to see the next step in front of you at any given point in the early drafting process. Stepping down that cliff on one very nicely appointed stair, and then the next, and then the next, and so on until you’re tidily at the bottom sipping some cocoa (or something-ish like this) is for many a great technique for getting an entire book written.
However, let’s say you know you want to write a book, but you aren’t sure yet what it should be about or what area of your business you want to speak to. It would be trying to write an outline before you are certain what your book is going to be about, very cart-before-the-horse, which may make your life far harder. No one needs that.
In such a case, writing your way into the book’s topic by simply opening up a fresh document or getting a new sheet of paper and letting your unconscious mind fly is the better first step. Only after your mind has hit on some very important issues- things of which you may not have been consciously aware- can you evaluate from the mass of material what your book will be about. Then, with grace and far more ease, can you bring that material to the outline.
1. The Benefit of Beginning with an Outline for Your Book about Your Business
An outline for a nonfiction book that you design before you begin writing the first full draft, provides something of a “connect the dots,” both psychologically and visually.
Psychological Boost to Having an Outline for Your Nonfiction Book
It is an alleviation to be able to focus on one small area of your book at a time rather than trying to take on the entirety of it all at once without a plan or markers to light your way. Quite like any other large-scale project such as running a marathon, home renovation, or mountain climbing, plotting out smaller sections that you can physically accomplish as you go along to the big end goal lets you meet targets, keeps you focused, and gives you a feeling of accomplishment, all of which send endorphins to the brain that make you feel good and which then fuel you toward further happy writing.
In the One Lit Place online course, “Cultivating Creativity- How to Start- and Sustain- the Writing Habit,” I talk in detail (and with examples and writing exercises) about how addressing one small section of your book at a time is an excellent way to inch your way toward an entire book almost painlessly.
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Visual Relief The Outline Provides
Visually, an outline alleviates the writer from having to hold all of the book’s components in her head. Many writers are famous for their outlines that they lay out physically on floors, walls, or in their computers to help them stay organized and take the process step by step to avoid getting overwhelmed.
If you are ready to begin the outline, here is a sample outline template from nonfiction writer David Colin Carr that you can follow and adapt for your own book.
2. The Benefit of Writing Your Way into Your Book
If you have loads of great ideas, but out of the sea of possible subjects you’re not sure which to choose, free-writing your way into your purpose and topics may be the more productive method. In this case, letting your unconscious mind tap into what you know and want to say is an effective first step toward figuring out what to focus on in your book.
What is “Free-Writing”?
Free-writing is literally the act of freely letting yourself write without thinking, censoring yourself, or concerning yourself with the writing’s outcomes. It’s like being someone else’s typist.
In this phase, done properly, your unconscious mind will take over, and it will come to some conclusions and clarity in a way you might not be able to if you were trying to control the process.
- Parts 5: Lay the Words, Make a Pattern, Get the First Draft Done
- 5a: The Art of Not Thinking: A Counter-Intuitive Approach to Writing a First Draft
- and 5b: The Unthinkable: Getting Stuck (and How to Get Un-Stuck) in Your First Draft
I talk about how to plunge mindlessly into the first draft, what you can expect from the process, how to trick yourself into carrying on when it gets hard, and what happens if you happen to be human and begin to worry about the unwieldly material you’re generating and get “stuck” (commonly known as writer’s block).
You are not alone in being concerned that this part of the book creation is a little amorphous, theoretical, and uncertain. But in the end, most writers must go through this to get to the good stuff that’s deep in the unconscious mind where our best ideas live.
I have to write to discover what I am doing. I don’t know so well what I think until I see what I say. Flannery O’Connor
The benefit of making your outline from your freewriting is not only will you have the essential ideas and purpose of the book, you’ll have a good deal of what will become actual content already in your hands.
Which Technique Is Better?
All people are different, and their approaches to writing are different as well. Zadie Smith talks about the two types of writers: Macro Planners and Micro Writers. “A macro planner makes notes, organizes material, configures a plot and creates a structure — all before he writes the title page. This structural security gives him a great deal of freedom of movement,” she says. Alternatively, “Micro Managers have no master plan for their writing and simply figure out the ending when they get there.”
Both methods are valuable, and whether you come in from the left having done your early brainstorming, know your subject and how to design the layout of your book, or the right, when you write your way into the focus and purpose of the book, at the intersection where the two approaches meet, all things become one: you write your outline and then begin writing your book.
Next Up in Part 7: The Anatomy of an Outline- how to lay out the points of your book and what items to include in the outline.
If you would like more specific tips and insights, feel free to start at the beginning of this blog series, How to Write a Book for Your Business, which walks small business owners and entrepreneurs through the process- from beginning to what will ultimately be a completed book: Part I: How Do You Know When You’re Ready to Write a Book for Your Business?
If you’d like help, support, and some excellent actionable tips and practices for launching your writing in blogging, which can eventually become your book for your business, our 2-hour The Blogshop is a dynamic and interactive online seminar to get you moving into your writing (Next session: March 8, 2019).