In the last post here on The Spoon I talked about The 7 Reasons That Non-Fiction Writers Should Outline Books. If you’ve not read that post, then click that link at some stage and check it out – there’s some important information in there.
I’m shortly going to be going through in detail the outlining system that I use when writing a non-fiction book. Before I start detailing the different steps of that outlining system I wanted to write an introductory post detailing how I came up with the system that we’re going to work through.
First though, let’s answer a question:
Why Do You Need An Outlining System For Non-Fiction Books?
Sometimes when you’re writing a book you know what your topic is, and you have a reasonably clear idea of the structural steps implied by your topic.
When that’s the case, you can almost sit down and create the kind of hierarchical outline they teach at college.
But what if you have an idea of a topic you want to write about? But have no idea of the structural steps necessary to take that idea from Introduction to Epilogue?
That’s when an outlining system becomes so useful that it’s a necessity.
And having a dynamic system that guides you from your original idea and leads you to a fully detailed, fully structured outline makes the subsequent writing of your book a cinch.
The system that I’m going to share with you didn’t happen overnight though. It came about through a combination of circumstance and experience – and it all started with my experiences with fiction writing.
What I Learned From My Fiction Writing Experiences
I’ve wanted to write fiction – and wrote fiction on and off – since I was 12 or 13. And I’ve read hundreds of books on the subject and tried out just about every fiction writing system there is.
In the mid 90s I wrote a novel called TEN – a ‘serial killer thriller’. The two things I remember most about TEN was that: (a) it came close to getting me a book deal; and, (b) I used a program called Dramatica to fully outline the novel before I wrote a word of it.
What’s interesting about how Dramatica works is that a lot of how the program does its work is based on questions. And the answers that you (the author) provides – plus the ‘brainstorming’ and expansion that goes with those answers – helps the author outline a story that hangs together reasonably well.
Although using Dramatica worked – in that I outlined and wrote a completed novel – I was never 100% happy with the story theory that the program was based on. And I was always reading other story theories and looking for other information on plotting and outlining.
That’s where the next piece of the puzzle came from.
The Snowflake Guy
There’s a fiction writer, and fiction-writing teacher, out on the Interwebz called Randy Ingermanson. He wrote an article at some stage on writing a novel. You’ll find that article here if you want to check it out:
There are two interesting facts to take from Randy’s article:
- Right at the top of the article he freely tells you there are literally thousands of methods of outlining a novel. The best method is the one that works for And then he goes on to share what works for him (which is the Snowflake method).
- Whilst ultimately the Snowflake method wasn’t a method that really worked for me when I tried it – it had some interesting parts of the method.
That’s Outlining For Fiction – What About Non–Fiction?
Here’s how this pertains to non-fiction. I’m a member of a private marketing forum and through a strange set of circumstances I found myself in the autumn of 2012 given a task with these parameters:
- To guide around 30 people through the process of creating a detailed working outline of a short book, eBook or report (30 to 40 pages.)
- Few of these people had ever written at that length before, or created a book, eBook or report.
- The process was subdivided into daily tasks
- Ideally each daily task would take less than 30 minutes. (And if possible less than 20 minutes!)
Now when I got this task I did what everyone does when they don’t have much of a clue: I went to Google.
Google didn’t have much of a clue either.
So it was back to the drawing board.
By chance I was working on a series of fiction novellas at the time and I’d been plotting one of them in Dramatica (which had gone through several upgrades and new iterations in the intervening years).
And although I still didn’t like the story theory that the program was based on, I really liked the way the program had been created to prod the author with questions and get him to think about his story and where it was going. And think more deeply about his story.
But I saw how using a sequence of questions could be really powerful.
So on Day 1 of the Group Assignment I asked a simple question:
What is your book (or the book you wish to write) about?
The answers ranged from one sentence summaries to paragraphs of near stream of consciousness material.
So for Day 2’s assignment I wrote this: Go through your answer to yesterday’s question and pick out the most important element in the book you want to write. Now summarize the book you want to write in one sentence.
If you’ve read the Snowflake article that I linked above you’ll know that the Snowflake method starts with a one sentence summary and then builds out from there.
When I consciously linked the Dramatica method of asking questions with some of the structural steps in the Snowflake method I was able to create a process that everyone could follow.
Of the 30 or so people who started out on the outlining journey, I think 20-22 ended up with a complete and detailed outline that they could take to their writing space and actually use as the structural spine of their intended book or report.
Not only did these 20-22 people get through the process and complete their outlines, but watching them go through the process – and getting their feedback – was invaluable for working out where they got lost, or where things weren’t detailed enough, or where extra guidance was.
In short that Group functioned exactly as a group of Beta Testers would.
Streamlining And Improving The Process
Since then I’ve used the process several times to create books and reports for my How To Play Bass website. And I’ve streamlined AND improved the process as I’ve done this.
One of the biggest improvements was to ‘templatize’ the process in the great writing program Scrivener.
Over the next few weeks I’m going to go through the process in detail here on The Spoon.
I recommend that you read the first paragraph or so of Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Novel writing article if you haven’t already. The important words are: the best (outlining) system is the one that works for you.
The system that I’m going to share may work for you. It may not. If it does you might find some tweaks that makes it even better for you (and if so, please drop me an email and share!). If my hybrid system doesn’t work for you, then at least you know. And if you work out why it didn’t work for you then you may get some pointers as to what kind of system would work for you.
In today’s post I outlined (;)) the influences that led me to create a Non Fiction outlining system when I had to lead 30 or so would-be writers through the process of outlining a short eBook/report.
Those influences were the fiction-writing program Dramatica. And Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Novel Writing System.
And the organizing idea is: use a structured series of questions to help non-fiction writers turn an idea into an Introduction to Epilogue outline.
Be back in a few days with the first official post in this series.
If you have any questions feel free to post them below.