If publishing a book is among your dreams—whether to hit the bestseller list, generate speaking opportunities, boost your professional image, expose your wit and wisdom, or release the storyteller inside—an outline is not merely an important tool; it’s your best friend.
You might remember agonizing over outlines for your high school and college term papers. Although I tried to beat the system many years ago by creating my outline from a paper I had already finished, I quickly realized the irony of trying to skip a step. If I had taken the time to organize my main ideas and subtopics in writing beforehand, I probably would have composed a better paper more efficiently with less stress.
Despite the advantages of following a proven method that works, many would-be authors share the misconception that an outline is a waste of time since they already know what they want to write. In their minds, outlines are painful assignments rather than highly constructive, insightful processes that yield invaluable results.
Once again, a fresh perspective can be helpful in choosing how you approach your work.
When you hear the word “outline,” don’t think of all the ways your English teacher tortured you; instead, imagine it as your opportunity to create your own writing buddy. Your comprehensive mission statement—your book’s purpose—is its brain. Main concepts, which will become your chapter headings, fill out the body. Subheadings and further chapter breakdowns are the details that distinguish the personality and quality of your creation.
Still, for many, the task of organizing seems too complicated. Where does each body part go? For ease, I advise clients to choose among three basic format structures—chronological, sequential and topical:
- Chronological order makes sense if the timing of events is intrinsic to your story.
- Sequential order works well if you’re sharing a process.
- Topical order can be appropriate if each chapter’s subjects are somewhat independent of one another.
You could easily end up with a hybrid structure—such as a sequential-topical format—but that will become apparent as you refine your thoughts. Be flexible and open-minded, but also remain true to yourself. An outline will reveal everything you need to know—even things you would rather not see—so read between the lines and do what you must to make it superior.
If your outline starts to nag you or if you feel that you aren’t getting anywhere with it, figure out why. Do you lack material? Is your topic weak? Would a new angle be more compelling? Are you holding back? Are you too close to the project? Do you need unbiased feedback? In all honesty, is this the book you want to write?
What is your outline saying that you need to hear?
In closing, I’m not here to claim that constructing a solid outline is easy. The task requires critical thought and thoughtful planning. Yes, it takes brainpower to write a book worth reading!
Even so, the exercise and effort, I can assure you, are tremendously rewarding.
Sallie W. Boyles, a.k.a. Write Lady