Published with permission from Jerry Jenkins.

There’s no way around it. You need a book outline if you’re writing nonfiction.

For a novel, if you’re a Pantser (one who writes by the seat of your pants—like I do) as opposed to an Outliner, you can get away with having a rough idea where you’re going and how to get there.

But for nonfiction, a book outline is non-negotiable.

Potential agents and publishers’ acquisitions editors require it in a proposal. They want to know you know where you’re going, chapter by chapter.

Over the past nearly 50 years, I’ve written 200 books, 21 of them New York Times bestsellers—a third of them nonfiction. I’ve come to appreciate the discipline of outlining, though that doesn’t work for me with fiction.

I’ve developed an easy-to-use book outline process I believe will help you organize your manuscript.

But first, a word about your topic…

Don’t make the mistake of trying to make a book of something that could—and should—be covered in an article or blog post.

You need a topic worthy of a book. Can it bear at least 12 chapters?

What is a Book Outline?

If you’ve forgotten the basics of classic outlining or have never felt comfortable with the concept, you can still manage this. Your book outline must serve you, not the other way around.

You don’t have to think in terms of 20+ pages of Roman numerals and capital and lowercase letters followed by Arabic numerals—unless that best serves your project. For me a bullet point list of sentences that synopsize my idea works fine.

Don’t even call it an outline if that offends your sensibilities. But fashion some sort of a document that provides direction and structure—which will also serve as a safety net to keep you on track.

A Winning Strategy for Outlining a Book

If you lose interest in your manuscript somewhere in what I call the Marathon of the Middle, you likely didn’t begin with enough ideas. A book outline will reveal such a weakness in advance. You want confidence your structure will carry you through to the end.

I recommend the novel structure illustration below for fiction, but with only slight adaptations it can work for nonfiction as well.

The same structure can turn mediocre nonfiction to something special. Arrange your points and evidence to set up a huge payoff, then make sure to deliver.

If you’re writing a memoir, an autobiography, or a biography, you or your biographical subject becomes the main character. Craft a sequence of life events like a novel, and watch the true story come to life.

But even if you’re writing a straightforward how-to or self-help book, stay as close to this structure as possible.

Make promises early, triggering readers to anticipate fresh ideas, secrets, inside information—something major that will thrill them with the finished product.

While you may not have as much action or dialogue or character development as your novelist counterpart, your crises and tension can come from showing where people have failed before and how you’re going to ensure your readers will succeed.

You can even make a how-to project look impossible until you pay off that setup with your unique solution.

How to Outline a Book in 5 Steps

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