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  • Writer's pictureMichael Jaymes

5 Keys For Effective Nonfiction Outlining

Updated: May 28

Professional Nonfiction Outlining

Outlining is one of the most misunderstood stages of the writing process, especially when it comes to nonfiction. Due to a poor interpretation of outlining, many writers decide to go into writing a book blindly, or they have such an awful outline it would have been better if they did!

To state it plainly, bad outlining (or lack thereof) is one of the leading reasons so many books fail.

So what is a good outline?

Below, is a brief explanation of what a nonfiction outline should reflect, which are the very elements I include in every outline I write for my clients.

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The first thing one must understand about an outline is that it is a guide. Think of the process of a sketch artist as an example. Many artists often begin by drawing what are called "drawing guidelines."

Drawing Guidelines

These lines are meant to lightly trace an object, or are sometimes drawn as fundamental shapes which help visualize an object. They are then erased during or after the sketch is completed. These are used to organize the drawing process and provide direction.

An outline ought to be used in the same way. It's meant to provide direction to a vision through organization.

Having this mindset before writing an outline is important, as without this knowledge, one may create an outline with too much restriction. These are the worse types of outlines, as they don't allow room for flexibility or creative ideas one may have during the writing process. Many writers make this mistake, viewing their outline as a dictator, not realizing that the outline is only "lightly tracing" their book idea. These types of outlines often lead to books being written that are only a shell of their potential.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, some outlines lack any form of restriction at all. They are vague, offering little-to-no detail on how to get from point A to point B.

A good outline will be somewhere in the middle. It will have specifics that highlight what should be discussed in a chapter, keeping in mind what order these points should be transcribed (more on this later). This does not mean a research paper's worth of information (topic research and outlining are completely seperate parts of the book-writing process), as an outline's purpose is not to overwhelm the writer with a myriad of information. Again, an outline should "lightly trace" the vision, not crowd it.

Moreover, a good outline will also provide guidance on how each chapter should read, as an outline will portray the tone and theme of an overall book. Without this, a writer may be left guessing how each chapter should sound, only to realize they've missed the mark halfway through the book.

Lastly, a good outline will be flexible, with the ability to expand, contract, and flex in light of the writer's style. They should have the capability to add their own topics, move around topics, or take away topics, easily seeing where they would fit within the created outline.

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The second thing one must consider is that an outline must have reason. If no strategy is applied, then one may fail to lead their reader on the correct route.


Think of it this way: let's say we are taking a trip from LA to NYC. Consider how many ways we could get there!

We could take a flight. That would probably be the fastest. Or we could hop on a few trains. That might be a fun adventure!

We could bike it. It might take a few weeks, but it'd make for great exercise.

We could take a car, but even taking a car has a variety of options. We can go highway only, avoid them at all costs, go the no toll route, see if we can travel through as many states on the way as possible, etc.

My point is there are a lot of different routes from one place to the next, and the most direct route isn't always the best option.

The same should be considered when writing a nonfiction book. What topics should be emphasized? Does this audience have specific stops they expect? Are their roads they hope to travel? Are their roads they hope to avoid? Are their detours they don't realize they need to explore?

All of this must be taken into consideration when outlining. If it's not prepared beforehand, there's a good chance a few stops will be missed during the writing process, leaving a reader unsatisfied with the book in the end.

Some writers make the mistake of viewing a book with too linear of a roadmap. They look at it like it's a map from Dora. "First, you'll have to go through the jungle, then you go over the big hill, and that's how you get to Benny's Barn."

On the other end, some writers have a route that looks more like a maze, making the writing process a nightmare, and the reading experience even more so.

A good outline will be based on a strategy with both the reader's expectations and the writer's intention in mind. Doing this will make it more clear on what topics should be covered and why.

Furthermore, a good outline will have a set destination, with key stops that build up to it. Without this, the points made throughout the book will feel disorganized, which can make the destination feel undetermined. This can also lead to a book full of chapters that read more like blog posts.

If a strategy is applied to the outline created, the writer will have a clear roadmap of specific stops they should make, along with a few designated paths to choose from to get to each. They will also have a destination in mind that will help get their message across and leave the reader satisfied in the end.

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Next, an outline must have some form of structure. Without a structure to hold the outline together, it may very well collapse.

House On A Rock

This has been taught since the beginning of time. All good things must have some form of foundation, for that is where its strength lies. Consider the parable of the house built on the rock and the house built on the sand. When the rains came and the thunder quaked, the house upon the rock stood firm, while the house on the sand went SPLAT!

The story always reminds me of when Hurricane Sandy came through the East Coast in 2012. My house lost power for four days. I thought I had it rough until I went to help with the flood removal at my grandparents in Point Pleasant, New Jersey. Houses that were held up by piers had been completely swept away.

Unless one wants their book to meet the same end, structure is an essential part of the outlining process.

When an outline is seen as a guide, notes on specific points to cover, the overall theme, and tone of the writing will come into play. Applying this to a strategy then gives organized direction. The structure then prepares each stop on the journey.

A good outline will have a formulaic chapter layout, patternized for each chapter to both build, while sharing similarity. This means that one chapter won't be solely research, while another is soley storytelling.

A good outline with structure will also have a balance between preaching, teaching, and showing the message. Preaching involves spreading the good news of the message of the book, shepherding readers like a flock in the fold as a confident speaker. Teaching involves proving one's credibility on the message proclaimed, building a case to prove that this message is based on knowledge. Showing involves giving examples that put the message on displaying, providing clarity and relatability to the reader.

These are the three main pillars that make up writing a nonfiction book, and if prepared accordingly, will lead to writing a book full of excitement, provability, and storytelling.

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An outline must have actionable steps to follow. It must have applicable points for both the writer and reader included. Without these, it is meaningless. What worth is a guide that cannot lead?

A Frog On A Rock

Think back to high school Biology class. What is most memorable? For many, it's likely disecting a frog. Why? Because it was a lab that left the page; it was words put into action.

It's the same with writing an outline. If the words are no more than words, then their purpose is yet to be fulfilled. It can act as the perfect guide, strategically and structurally sound, but without application, it can never be used.

Some writers do well enough to even have a strategy backing their outline, let alone structure, but what often happens is they find difficulty in translating the words from outline form to chapter form.

Other writers have only actionable steps in their outlines. These outlines are often one-line bullet points, leaving out depth that connect their points.

I worked with a writer like this recently. They wanted me to review their manuscript, saying they don't know what else to write. They had a ten-chapter book planned, and each chapter was lucky to break 1,000 words, some not even breaking 500. I asked them for their outline, and this is what it looked like:

  • C1: Talk about time I went to rehab

  • C2: Provide three Ls on being tetotaller

  • C3: ?

  • C4: Advice on exercise

Note: this is not their actual outline and is just an example.

The outlining style completely misses the mark of providing valuable guidance that leads to each action. While having specific actions to write about or applications to provide to a reader are essential, they must be worked into an outline that acts as a guide, that implements a strategy, and that stands on a structure.

Each chapter in the outline, prepared under the stipulations provided above, should have actionable steps that can be used during the writing process. These steps should emphasize what to write, how to write it, and how to transition to the next point.

Along with these, most chapters will likely have a main application for the reader to take away, whether it be knowledge or action. These must also be planned beforehand during the outlining process. While not every single piece of information is necessary, ideas should be listed in order to help provide a short-term goal for each chapter to be written toward.

Ultimately, a good outline has instructions, which fill in the blanks between structure and strategy. Structure and strategy help build a layout for what chapter should discuss which points. Instructions help show how to flow from one point to the next and end with the reader's application in mind.

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The last main piece in creating a good outline is motivation. If an outline doesn't get the reader hyped about writing their book, then something is wrong.

For my last example, let's consider music. There are a variety of genres and voices in the world, making some music similar, and other music very unique.

Man Listening To Music

Everyone has a certain taste when it comes to music. Some can listen to a general genre all the time, not really caring who the artist is that's singing. Others are die-hard fans of one artist in specific. Some people like to listen to music with no words. Others like to listen to music in different languages.

With all the different varieties of music, everyone can agree that music causes a certain feeling. This leads to different types of music being used at different times.

For example, one person may listen to classical music while studying; another may listen to rock songs during their workout; and another (we all know that one guy) may throw on the Christian playlist at home when relatives come to visit.

Music, when put into specific environments, can set the mood and motivate action. A good outline will do the same thing!

I've met a countless amount of writers that have come to me saying they've tried and tried and tried to write their book, but they just can't do it. They've done all their research; they've created an outline; heck, some have even done interviews and began marketing the book they haven't written. And yet, they can't find themselves putting pen to paper.

There are a few likely scenarios that may lead to this. The first two is overwriting an outline or underwriting an outline (which I lightly touched on above). If the outline is chalked full of information, it may be overwhelming, constricting the writer instead of freeing them. If the outline isn't detailed enough, well, you already know what I think about that!

The third scenario, which I believe happens just as frequently, is that the outline is not motivating. Just like a book is written in such a way that pushes a reader to keep turning the pages, keeping learning new information, and maybe live differently in light of it, an outline must do the same. If the outline isn't exciting, it's likely the book won't be either!

A good outline won't be dry information that reads like a research paper, nor will it be vivid information with stories that lack proof. It must have some sort of balance, sprinkled with salt to give it the extra bit of flavor it needs.

Like music, an outline ought to scream an emotion, a sensation that is desirable to the writer. If it's something they're truly passionate about, then the information must jump off the page in a compelling way.

If an outline is lacking this expression of emotion, then there's likely something missing. Maybe the outline was only viewed through the lens of a guide for half the way. Perhaps the strategy isn't organized correctly in the middle. Maybe the beats of the structure aren't adding up in a chapter. There's a chance that the instructions aren't made clear.

Whatever the case may be, the outline must evoke the same emotion the writer hopes for the book to have. If it doesn't, there's a problem that could lead to a book falling flat, or even worse, not being written at all.


Thank you for your time! I know this is a lot of information to digest, but I hope that you learned a thing or two about what professional nonfiction outlining looks like and the value it provides to the writer.

In closing, I hope you now see the importance of having a good outline for nonfiction books, and the important elements that make up a good outline.

Some may write books without using all of these points that turn out to be best-sellers. Some may not use any of the points at all and still be successful. It happens! Some people have a knack for strategic outlining, subcontiously doing the work as they go.

But let's face it—if you're reading this right now, chances are you don't have this subcontious talent. I'd highly recommend using an outline, or at least giving it a shot.

What's the worst that can happen? You ditch the outline? So what! At least you tried, and no one's ever written a book without trying at least a little. ;)

If you're interested in my nonfiction outlining services, feel free to reach out. I'd be honored to serve you and help you prepare the next potential best-seller.

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