How to Start Writing a Nonfiction Book—Outlining Made Easy

How to start writing a nonfiction book? If you’re like many business people, life coaches, and other subject-matter experts, there’s a book idea rolling around in your head that has perhaps been there for years. Maybe you’ve taken the plunge and started writing, only to find yourself stuck in a ditch. Or maybe you’ve no idea where to start, and are waiting for a nudge in the right direction.

This article is your nudge—or, if you’re in the first group, your tow-truck. In either case, take heart. It’s really not as formidable a project as it seems from where you’re standing. Yes, it will take time, but if you start out on the right foot, the writing will flow, and you’ll be surprised at how naturally everything comes together. 

After all, you’re an authority on your subject, with thoughts that many would like for you to share. Getting those thoughts down on paper is not much harder than speaking them out to someone. You just need to know where and how to begin.

(Note: The tips in this article do not apply to memoirs. If you’re working on a memoir, please see Writing a Memoir? Avoid These 7 Mistakes!)   

Outlining: the Strategy that Turns Dreams into Books

So let’s talk about how to get started. As a developmental book editor who helps authors facing this challenge, I assure you the correct place to start is with an outline. No, it’s not with transcripts of your talks. It’s also not with a blank piece of paper where you spontaneously start writing out your thoughts with no plan in place.

Those avenues seem appealing at first glance, but they create problems up the road and defeat a would-be author with overwhelm. With transcripts, you’ll find yourself inundated in repetition and tangents (perfectly acceptable in public speaking, but anathema in writing). With spontaneous, unplanned writing, you’ll find yourself going in circles after a while, repeating yourself, forgetting things you meant to include, unable to find the right spot to insert what you feel is missing.

How to Start Writing a Nonfiction Book - Outlining Made EasyThe better approach by far is to simply outline the ideas you want to express, BEFORE beginning your writing. With an outline to keep you on track, that writing will be informed and coherent, based on a structure, a chapter “scaffolding” so to speak, that will guide the order in which you present your thoughts and make them easily accessible to your readers.

And that, of course, is what it’s about in the end: writing something that your target audience will find engaging and easy-to-read. The engaging part comes from the valuable ideas you have to share. The easy-to-read part comes from your planning—that is, from your outline.

Here, then, are the steps for how to get started writing a nonfiction book:

Step 1: Brainstorm Your Chapter Titles

To begin your outline, start by thinking in term of chapter titles. Make a list of about ten topics you want to cover in the manuscript, and give each one a tentative chapter title. You can polish and refine these later on. For now, just get the idea down in several words—no more than five or ten words, tops. The goal is to write a chapter title, not to start explaining the chapter’s idea.

Once you have this list, look it over and see if there’s anything you’re missing. Perhaps you need to add a topic, or maybe you need to break one of the chapter titles into two chapters. At this point you won’t know for sure, so don’t get hung up deciding. The outline will refine itself as you move along through the process.

Step 2: Brainstorm Your Chapter Subheadings

Once you have your list of tentative chapters, take the first chapter title and brainstorm ideas and content that should go in that first chapter. Write these ideas in list form: as bullet points, not as sentences.

That’s important. The temptation will be to start writing sentences, to fill out the ideas that come to you, with actual text. You must resist that urge, or you’ll end up stuck in the same quagmire as the would-be author who tries to write spontaneously without an outline. Keep focused on developing your outline! The time to write text is going to come later.

After brainstorming bullet-point ideas that belong under your Chapter One heading, move on to the Chapter Two heading and do the same thing, continuing all the way to the end of your outline.

When finished, look over what you’ve written to see if (a) there are places where you’ve got duplicates (the same idea appearing in two different chapters), or (b) you left something out. Don’t worry that something might be missing. You can add in more subtitles later if you think of things you missed.

Step 3: Organize the Subheadings

You now have a working outline for your book: complete with tentative chapter titles and subheadings. The next step is to organize the subheadings. Shift them around so they follow one after the other in a logical order. You can shift the order of the chapter titles also if you wish to: maybe what you designated as Chapter Two would work better as Chapter Seven.

Write “Introduction” at the top of your chapter list, but don’t write out bullet points for the Introduction. Very specific things belong in a book’s introduction. (See this article that explains what does and doesn’t belong there: Does Your Book Need an Introduction, Preface, or Foreword?). Ironically enough, the Introduction is actually the last section you should write of your book, once all the chapters are finished.

Step 4: Start Writing Your Text

With your working outline in tow, you are now in a position to sit down and start spontaneously writing, one subhead at a time, provided you resist the temptation to meander and write about ideas that belong to other subheads rather than the subhead you are working on.

Write the book in any order you like—you need not start with Chapter One or with the first subhead. If you want to stop working on one chapter and start on another, feel free to follow that inspiration. Just be sure to stick to the topic of the section you’re addressing.

If you want to move a subhead to a different area in the outline, that’s fine. The important thing is, when writing, to stay within the topic you’re supposed to be writing about.

Step 5: Begin and End Each Chapter with a Summary or Lead-In

Each chapter should begin with at least a few sentences introducing the subject of the chapter. Never begin a chapter with a subhead. Always introduce the chapter topic before you start in on your subheads. Similarly, end each chapter with a few sentences of chapter summary and/or an introduction to the topic of your next chapter.

Putting these “bookends” around the content of each chapter helps your readers organize the content in their minds. They know what to expect as they continue reading, and where the information fits in with what they’ve read before. This technique is sometimes described as: “Tell ‘em what you’re gonna tell ‘em. Tell ‘em. Then tell ‘em what you told ‘em.”

What to Do If You Started Writing Your Book the Wrong Way

But what if you’ve already started writing your book, and have many pages of disorganized notes or meandering paragraphs that are inspired but don’t seem to lead anywhere? Can you make use of those with this outlining strategy?

Yes. Simply cut up the material you have written and assign each snippet to the subheading where that idea best belongs. You can do this on the computer using the cut-and-paste feature. If the musings are handwritten, you can pin them to a cork board that you’ve organized by chapter title and subheading. When you’re ready to write text for the subheading in question, begin by looking over the attached relevant snippet. If you like the way it’s worded, insert it into your text. If you don’t like the wording, include the idea in the snippet, but rewrite it so it sounds better.

Giving Your Masterpiece the Final Polish

You now know the tried-and-true strategy for how to get a big, book-sized idea down on paper, in a way that flows, doesn’t repeat itself, includes all the sub-ideas, and is easy for readers to digest. Once you’re finished writing your draft, go over it multiple times to remove redundant word clutter, to polish the sentences, and to correct grammar and punctuation— also to make sure the ideas are presented in the best order, are explained clearly, don’t repeat, and require no additional information.

When you’ve made the manuscript the best you know how to make it, run it by some peers and ask for their honest feedback. If two or more people give you the same criticism, what they’re saying is probably valid. Look over the How to Start Writing a Nonfiction Book -- Outlining Made Easysection multiple people had a problem with, and try to make it better.

Last of all, run the manuscript by a qualified developmental editor to make sure you haven’t missed something. First-time authors have their blind spots: it’s sometimes impossible to see a mistake you’re making until an editor draws it to your attention.

You now know how to get started writing a nonfiction book. Its not as daunting a task as at first it seems, provided you’re an expert on your subject matter and follow these simple steps. If you do, you’ll end up with a product you can be proud of, and you’ll spend minimal time and energy getting there.

Jessi Rita Hoffman … book editing by an industry professional