By Dennis Mellersh
Developing an outline for your non-fiction book is a particularly important process because the outline is the underpinning or foundational framework to support the content of your book.
A book outline is essentially a point form description or blueprint or plan of the structure of the book you are planning to write. It is your plan for your book's content.
How you develop and write the outline for the book you’re planning partially depends on whether or not you already know a lot about the subject matter and are an expert, or whether you are starting from scratch. If you are already knowledgeable about the subject matter, you have a head start and will be able to write a basic outline before you consult further research sources.
Also, keep in mind that writing an outline for a book of fiction, such as a novel, is different from constructing an outline for a non-fiction book. Methods you may be familiar with for writing a fiction outline will not necessarily work for constructing an outline for a non-fiction book.
As a word of encouragement before you start on your project, remember that as long as you have a strong interest in the topic of your book, you can produce effective content for it, even if you don’t have a lot of knowledge about the topic beforehand. Professional non-fiction writers, for example, are often not familiar with the topics they write about until they do considerable research.
Doing your research will help identify themes
Unless you are already an expert, you will need to do research in order to have enough material for your book. At this point, let’s assume that you have done the research for your book. How to do the research is a detailed topic for further discussion in an upcoming article.
While doing your research, you may have noticed that certain themes or major subjects started to become prominent, or kept coming up in different source materials. These topics or subjects can be the basis of starting to categorize the topics that you will write about in your book.
In turn, these major topics can be chapters in your book, and the topics requiring less detailed information can be subsets of your book’s chapters. At this point, the basic outline for your book will start to emerge or be apparent to you.
Helping your readers to understand your material
To write the chapter outline for your book, you will need to decide in what order to present your information in the best manner that will help the reader fully understand the subject you are writing about.
This might mean an historical or chronological sequencing of the content, or it might require an outline in one of the early chapters, of the basic principles involved in the subject. The outline section involving your chapters should ideally include the subtopics, with subtitles, thereby dividing each chapter into subsections.
Decide on the reader knowledge level you will write for
You will also need to decide, and this should be before you do your research, at what expertise level of your reading audience you will be directing the book to. Are your prospective readers novices, people with an intermediate level of knowledge, or are they more advanced?
The knowledge or skill level of your prospective readers will determine to some extent the format of your outline. If you are writing the book for novices, for example, your methodology will involve step-by-step explanations of the subject matter.
The introduction and possible index
You may want to include an introduction or preface to your book and this should be included in your outline. The Oxford Writers’ Dictionary defines preface as follows: “The introductory address of the author to the reader, in which he [she] explains the purpose and scope of the book.”
Likewise, it can be useful, depending on the subject matter, to include an index at the back of the book so readers can find out quickly and on which pages there are references to particular subjects that interest them. An index can be helpful to readers when the book is of significant length and complexity, with a wide variety of sub-topics covered.
Table of contents
This a section of the final published book which serves to tell the readers what is the book by section with corresponding page numbers. Some authors like to give a mini-summary of the content of each chapter or section in their table of contents.
Other important elements of an outline
Although this article is primarily concerned with the creation of an outline for the main body of the text of your book, your outline should also include a note to yourself that you will need artwork and typography for the four covers of your book (outside front, inside front, inside back, and outside back) as well as a title page, and perhaps an acknowledgements page and a bibliography of books, articles and other materials you have sourced in the research for your book. You will also need a publication data page, noting copyright and other publishing information.
So far, your outline could be shaping up something like this:
Publication data page
Preface or Introduction
Chapters by subject title of each chapter
Table of contents
Bibliography of research sources
Keep a flexible attitude towards your outline
The outline for your book should be thought of as a work in progress rather than being cast in stone. It is like a battle plan – something to serve as a guide — not as a plan to be rigidly adhered to at all costs. During the formative stages of developing your non-fiction book your ongoing research will continually reveal new aspects of material that you should include as part of the content.
As you develop your book you will likely find that you will need to modify your plan. Writing a book is a fluid process and an art, not a mechanical process. The development of your outline is similar: it may change considerably before you start the actual writing process.
Review of the purpose of the various non-fiction book content or outline elements
The acknowledgement page: This page is generally where you, as the author of the book would offer thanks for anyone who helped you in the writing and editing, and possibly research stages of the book. This page can also be an opportunity to acknowledge particular research source materials that you found particularly helpful in either the content or key ideas for your book.
Preface or introduction: This section can be used to explain why you feel there is a need for your book -- in other words, explain why you wrote the book. You can also offer suggestions to the reader as to how they can use the book to best advantage. The introduction can also serve as a brief explanation of the main ideas you are trying to get across to the reader and why you consider these ideas to be important.
Chapters: The chapters or basic sections of your book provide an organization framework for the content and help your reader to navigate and prioritize how they will read and study your book. Chapters also allow the reader to tackle the reading of your book in bite-size pieces in a logical sequence.
Index: For readers, it can be frustrating to be looking for something very specific in a non-fiction book, only to find that there is no index. This particularly true for larger non-fiction books with some complexity. Do your readers a favour and help them better utilize your book by providing an index. It will take some extra time, but your readers will appreciate it.
Bibliography: This is a list of the research sources you consulted in the research stages of developing your book. You can do it in one list, or by chapters if your book will be lengthy. As an it can also serve as a "further reading" list for those of your readers who want to pursue any of your research findings in greater depth with the original sources. You might also want to actually include a "further reading" list of books and other source materials that you want to recommend.
Before you get along too far in creating your book's outline, go to your local library or bookstore and check out how other writers of published non-fiction books structured or organized the content of their books. This may give you some good ideas that you can use in developing the outline for the book you are planning.