Writing a business book: Outlines that work

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Most outlines do not stand up to the reality of writing a book

“I’ve got this! I am ready to write my book!”

That’s what you may be thinking when you finish your outline. After all, your main points and sub-points are marching down the page in perfect order. You think you understand exactly what you need to write.

What happens next goes something like this. You start writing your book following your outline. You run into trouble. You don’t have a crucial fact. You can’t exactly remember how you were going to use that story under I. A. 1. Besides, it might work better later in the book.

You slog on anyway. Suddenly, you realize that the stuff you have down toward the bottom of the first page of your outline should really be in the introduction.

Outlines are like those plans Dwight Eisenhower talked about

Eisenhower said that “Plans are nothing. Planning is everything.” Outlines are like that.

The outline itself, especially if it’s like the ones you did in school, doesn’t deal with some of the issues you’ll encounter in writing a book. But the process of outlining can make your book easier to sell and easier to write. You just can’t do it the way you learned in school.

That outlining was fine for a short piece, usually one you would write in one sitting. But a book is different. A book is longer and more complex and it takes longer to write. Plus, writing a book is a process of discovery for most of us. You need a different kind of outline.

The kind of outline you need to write a book

Let’s start with the things that weren’t in those outlines you did in school. Write a brief summary for every chapter you will have in your book. A couple of sentences for each chapter will do.

Include lots of detail in your outline. Identify the main story that will open each chapter. Include supporting research and other stories you may use.

Try to limit yourself to a maximum of four main sup-points in each chapter. That will force you to prioritize. It will also rein in any tendency to write chapters that go on forever.

Describe how the chapter should end and how you’ll point to the next chapter. That will help you identify places where the chapter order is a problem.

To write that kind of outline you need a different kind of process

Your book outline is important. Give it the time it deserves.

Before you outline, think about the basics of the book. What will it be about? Who will buy this book and why? State the problem you’re going to solve. Describe who has it. State how you will solve the problem. Describe why what you recommend will work.

Start with whatever you’ve got. It might be a list of key points. It could be a visual plan, like a content map. Some authors start with a few good stories. Some even start with an outline like the ones they did in college. Where you start is not as important was where you finish.

Get the first draft of your outline onto a page or into a file. Then, let it rest. Go back and fill in the information and stories you need. Revise the summaries. Let it rest. Repeat

Stop revising when you’ve a got a solid, detailed outline. It should include a short summary for each chapter. It should include pointers to all the stories and research you’ll need. The order of chapters should make sense.

When you’ve got your outline, put it to work

When you’ve got a good outline, put it to work. If you’re going the traditional publisher route, use it as part of your book proposal. If you’re going to publish yourself, start writing.

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