If you’ve ever heard a gifted fiction writer talk about their craft, they often describe how they have an idea for a plot and richly-imagined characters, and then they start writing and see where these characters take them. Writers often talk about how even THEY are surprised by the choices their characters make.
This is not what nonfiction writing is like. Writing a nonfiction book is like writing a sermon, a really long, 40,000-80,000-word sermon. And just like writing a sermon, a lot of preparation and intentionality goes into making sure the end product isn’t a confusing jumble of thoughts, but a precisely aimed arrow that hits the bull’s-eye. The key to accomplishing this with a book is to spend time creating a good outline.
You may remember outlines as that annoying part of your 8th-grade research paper that 25 percent of your grade was based on. For the more right-brained creative types especially it’s easy to skip this step. But not only is outlining incredibly helpful, it can be fun too. Here are five quick steps to crafting a good outline.
FIND THE “WHY” OF YOUR IDEA
Maybe you want to talk about God’s love. Perhaps you have a passion for how misunderstood the sovereignty of God is. Maybe you want to write about the book of Revelation (good luck!). These are all fine topics, but they’re not enough until you find the “why.” What is it about God’s love that matters so much that people should buy your book? What is the one misunderstood aspect of God’s sovereignty that, if grasped, will change someone’s life forever?
Many communicators take the “why” for granted, assuming everyone else is as interested as they are (they’re not). This produces a meandering book that leaves the audience either bored or confused three chapters in. In one short sentence, what is the “why” of your book?
LIST EVERY MAJOR SUB-POINT OF YOUR BIG IDEA
Once you’ve drilled down to the “why,” it’s time to start fleshing out the “how.” Let’s say you’re talking about how God’s love is different than a worldly concept of love that lets people down. Now it’s time to list out every major way this is true. What are the five to 10 aspects of God’s love, as distinct from the world’s love, you want to discuss? What order creates the best flow?
CRAFT TITLES FOR EACH CHAPTER
Don’t sweat this stage too much as these are just placeholders you can change. At the same time, you probably have an idea of where you want to go with each chapter. Maybe you want to discuss God’s loving anger. Spend time finding a creative hook for that subject that might draw people in.
WRITE YOUR INTRODUCTION
This is where drilling down for your “why” pays off. The introduction is not the time to tell people exactly what you’ll be discussing in each chapter. The introduction is when you create the narrative tension. Draw people into your mystery with a compelling premise that makes them wonder what you’ll say in the following chapter. On the “God’s love” example, the introduction is where you talk about the common conception of what “God is love” means and then show through examples how this concept is a catastrophic thing to believe—how it sounds good but leaves us worse off than before. The introduction should pull the rug out from under people’s preconceived ideas and leave them scrambling to find a new reality.
COMPILE AS MUCH AS YOU CAN PER CHAPTER
Now the research starts. For each chapter, compile all the thoughts, illustrations, quotations, memorable turns of phrase or anything else you could possibly imagine even maybe using. To help organize this process, I like to use Evernote, a great file organizing tool, but there are other options (including just a list of subfolders in your documents folder).
At this point you’re ready to start writing! There will be a lot of new discoveries along the way—chapters will be removed and added, you’ll realize one of your favorite paragraphs is out of place and has to be cut. It’s a fun, frustrating, time-consuming process—but because you’ve outlined well, you’ll know your destination while you’re in the middle of writing.
If you haven’t already, be sure to download the Free Self-Publishing Guide from Equip Press.