If you’ve spent any time hanging around fiction writing circles you’ll know there’s what seems an uncross able divide between two different types of writers
That divide is whether fiction writers outline and plan their books in advance of their writing (plotters); or whether these writers apply the seat of their pants to the seat of their chairs and ‘make it up as they go along’ (pantsers).
There doesn’t seem to be this kind of divide for non-fiction writers. Most non-fiction writers seem to be in agreement that you need to prepare some kind of outline before you start the actual writing.
Systemizing The Outline Process
If you plan to write more than one non-fiction book, then you need to work towards systemizing your outline process. The use of the word ‘your’ was deliberate there – one of the things that I’ve learned from reading literally hundreds of interviews with fiction writers, screenwriters and non-fiction writers is that each and every one of them has an individual approach to the outlining process.
I’m going to be sharing my own outlining process over the course of the next few posts here on OneSpoon. That outlining process has been systemized over time and my outlining process chunks down a book into a series of smaller pieces of writing that are approximately the length of a medium/long blog post or web article.
Now you are free to follow the system faithfully, you could blend it with another system that you like, you could take bits of it and create your own unique system, or you could think about it and decide my system is not for you. (The latter choice is only positive if you are weighing it up against a number of options and find what you think is a superior option.)
The Benefits Of Outlining Your Book Before You Write It
There are substantial reasons why you should outline a non-fiction book before you write it, and that’s what we’re going to cover in the remainder of this article.
#1 Outlining Allows You To Separate The ‘Discovery’ Stage From The Writing Stage
Most people have a good idea of what they want to write before they write it. But only at the 30,000 foot level.
Problems can arise when it comes to focus on some of the detail.
I’ve seen some writers advocate writing a ‘vomit’ draft – so-called because you metaphorically open up the idea floodgates and ‘vomit’ everything on your topic onto paper. Either via Freewriting. Or just writing a chaotic mess.
Then these writers have the task of wading through their ‘vomit-draft’ looking for the golden ideas that they actually want to include in their book.
I think this is a wasteful and counter-productive way of conducting the ‘discovery’ stage of your writing. Because the discovery stage is more about uncovering the different ideas you want to work on and how to combine those ideas than actually writing them down, a more productive method is to use the ‘Outlining’ or ‘Pre-Writing’ stage of writing your book to discover what your ideas are.
Traditionally, ‘outlining’ meant creating some kind of lifeless, hierarchical list in a reductive process to try and capture the essence of your book. Outlining can be much more dynamic than that – my outlining process is! – and in the course of ‘outlining’ you can go from a vague idea to a fully detailed, working outline that makes the actual writing of our book much easier.
#2 Outlining Allows You To Create The Optimum Structure For Your Book Before Writing It
One of the writing chores that ‘vomit-draft’ writers face is to take the material that they’ve splurged onto the page, find the nuggets that they want to keep, and then arrange those nuggets into a structure that will convey the idea(s) that they want to express.
This task can be done as part of a dynamic outlining process as well. By the time you put pen to paper – or fingertips to keyboard – you should know where you are going and how you are getting there. The only imponderable will be how long will it take you.
#3 The Dynamic Outlining Process Avoids Post Draft Time On Structural Editing
See #2 above as well – but once you’ve gone through the discovery process of your outlining, arranging the elements that you’ve discovered into a coherent whole avoids unnecessary structural editing time where you have to move sections around, and rewrite sections to accommodate this structural movement.
Paul’s Note – irrespective of how you outline I recommend that you use the writing program Scrivener to actually do your writing. That makes any kind of structural editing as easy as it can possibly be.
#4 An Outline Structures Your Book So That You Don’t Have To Write It Sequentially
Because you’ve both ‘discovered’ the major structural spine of your book and ordered it in the dynamic outlining process, when it comes to the actual writing of the book you are free to write in any order that takes your fancy.
That way if one section of a book is causing you a bit of resistance you can simply ignore that for the next writing session and jump to a section of the book that you are itching to write.
With the ideas that you are including and the order in which those ideas will appear already set down – and with this all created in Scrivener – it is incredibly easy to write in a non-sequential manner but create a finished draft that needs only light editing to ensure that it is a seamless read.
Paul’s Note 2 in ‘fiction’ writing circles the writers who live and die by structure are screenwriters. And I’ve read interviews with several screenwriters who write from the last scene and go backwards. It’s an interesting experience and one I recommend that you try out at some stage.
#5 An Outline Helps Reduce Overwhelm
My outlining process chunks a book down into a number of pieces that are approximately 1000-1250 words long. It’s much easier to sit down and write a 1250 word section that is complete in itself, than it is to sit down and write the next 1250 words from your book.
And it’s much easier to imagine writing 60 blog posts than it is to imagine writing an 80,000-word book. The thought of 80,000 words fills most people with dread. 60 blog posts though….that’s relatively easy.
So any overwhelm you feel at the thought of starting your book can be reduced because writing a series of blog posts is not a big deal. I’m just writing a blog post. Speaking of which…
#6 This Outlining Process Helps You Reuse And/Or Repurpose Content Easily
Because this outlining process chunks a book down into a number of ‘blog post’ sized pieces, you can actually publish some or all of those pieces as you go along.
That can help build word of mouth for your book long before you’ve finished it. (How To Blog A Book by Nina Amir goes into this process in more detail.)
This specific chunk approach also allows you to repurpose some or all of the content of your book – you could turn discrete chunks into podcasts, or videos, or slideshares. The only limit is your imagination.
Both of these options are valuable if for some reason you decide not to finish your book during the writing process. This way you can still repurpose and/or reuse the content with the minimum of effort so that the investment of your time is not totally wasted.
#7 A Detailed Outline Allows You To Create A Consumption Sequence As You Write
Something that I’m going to write more about is the Implementation Gap that exists in a massive percentage of non-fiction/business type books.
Getting people to actually implement your ideas and teachings is a big part of getting them to become long-term fans (and long term customers/clients).
One way of actually helping your readers to implement your material is to create ‘bonus content’ – perhaps an Autoresponder series of emails – that functions as a workbook, or a practice manual and guides them in the actual implementation.
A detailed outline gives you the opportunity to create this sequence as you are writing the main parts of the book itself. That ensures that there is a high level of congruence between the book and the consumption sequence.
Over the next few posts here on One Spoon I’m going to be going through my dynamic outlining process in detail.
Non-fiction writers who are writing longer form work – books, white papers, report – should outline their work before they start writing. There are 7 major benefits to doing this:
- Outlining allows you to separate the discovery process from the actual writing
- Creates the optimum structure
- Dynamic outlining avoids post draft structural editing time
- Outlining structures your book so you can write non-sequentially
- Outlining helps reduce overwhelm
- Outlining allows you to reuse and repurpose content easily
- Outlining allows you to create a consumption sequence
If you have any questions feel free to post them below.