When someone says there’s only one way to do something, I often get ornery. Maybe I just don’t like being told what to do, but this rebellious tendency was particularly bad in high school. I almost failed English class because I detested my teacher’s rigid approach to writing papers. In his world view, you had to write every solitary thought on a separate index card, then somehow magically, turn them into an outline. We had to turn in our index cards first. After the pile of cards was “approved,” we handed in the outline. I thought it was a huge waste of paper and completely stupid, so I refused to cooperate.
Although it was a rigid approach, upon reflection, the concepts weren’t all bad. As it turned out, I was fine with the outlining process if I didn’t use index cards. I wrote out my thoughts on yellow legal pads instead (and didn’t flunk English). For some reason, I was able to take my ideas from the sheets of legal paper and turn it into an outline, even though dealing with the index cards made me nuts. Score one for non-conformity.
Even though I loathed my English teacher, learning how to create an outline was valuable. I really saw the value of outlining a project after I became a technical writer. The longer a document is, the more important it is to have an outline. I rarely outline short articles, but I can’t imagine trying to write a user guide, manual, or book without an outline. When I see people struggling to get a book done, many times their problems stem from the fact that they haven’t gone through the process of creating a solid outline first.
You can’t write something as long as a book without figuring out the big picture. An outline is like a roadmap for your project. As I’ve written before, first you need to figure out what your book is about and who will read it. For example, when I went to write my book Happy Tabby, the overall topic is “how to take care of cats that have been adopted from animal shelters” and the target reader is a new cat owner.
This topic is narrow enough to be a book and it has a defined audience that would be interested in reading the information. That’s important when you are blocking out your outline. If you begin brainstorming and it starts to look like your book is going to be 5,000 pages long, you probably have a problem with your overall topic.
Once you have a workable book topic selected, you can brainstorm a few general areas that might be covered in the book. In the case of my cat book, broad topics include subjects like adopting a cat, cat health, and cat behavior. Within a broad subject like adopting a cat would be topics like selecting a cat, breeds of cats, kittens versus adult cats, and so forth. After you’ve brainstormed a bunch of topics, you can start grouping them into sections. Underneath these big “section” topics, you can start devising more narrow topics to form your section or chapter headings.
An outline can be as detailed as you want it to be. When I wrote a book on PowerPoint, the publisher wanted me to take the outline down to the actual subheads in each chapter (so it was actually four levels deep). The book had very tight layout considerations and text under the subheads couldn’t be more than a certain number of words long. Needless to say, you don’t have to get down to this level of detail, but in some situations it may make sense.
Once you have an outline set up, it’s easy to block out sections to work on, so the book actually gets done. When you are faced with writing a book, thinking about writing 200 pages seems incredibly daunting. But when you look at an outline and realize that each subhead is only about as long as this article, it makes the whole process a lot more manageable.
Many unfinished books that sit languishing in a file somewhere suffer from a fundamental problem in structure. If the outline doesn’t work, it’s unlikely the book itself will either. So take the time to do an outline. If a reformed English-class rebel like me can do it, you can too.
The Happy Tabby book outline in IdeaWeaver