Eternal thanks to the wonderful and talented Antonina for this photo of me!
Launa from Indonesia asked me, by email:
One of my big dreams is to become a successful writer. I’ve one project right now. I’m planning to make a non-fiction book. But, I’m still confused about how to make an outline. Could you tell me how to make an outline?
What is the different between an outline for a fiction book and a non-fiction book?
Whatever sort of writing you do — blog posts, short stories, essays, articles, novels, non-fiction books — you’re going to need to outline.
That outline could be anything from a few words for your own use to multiple pages in a proposal to a publisher. In general, the longer your project, the longer your outline.
Here’s an example of a blog post outline, from my journal/notebook (basically my electronic brain ;-)).
Seven Simple Ways to Boost Your Mood, Right Now
(If you want to read the post that resulted from that outline, it’s one of my pieces on Pick the Brain: 7 Simple Ways to Boost Your Mood, Right Now)
I wrote that outline straight into my notebook, just as it appears here. I knew I wanted a list post (I had the title in mind first) and I decided that it’d be interesting to have one-word subheaders for the list items; this isn’t something I normally do, but I wanted to echo the “simple” of the title.
For anything longer than a blog post, though, you won’t generally start writing your outline straight off: you’ll need to do some other work first.
And before I dig in too deep, I’ll clear up Launa’s secondary question:
A non-fiction outline will normally be more detailed and more definite than a fiction outline (because you’re more likely to stick to it, and you’re also more likely to be selling a book to customers or a publisher on the basis of its outline or chapter list).
Writing a Non-Fiction Outline
If you’re writing a non-fiction book or ebook, an essay for school/university, or even a fairly in-depth blog post, then you’ll want a full and complete outline.
That means knowing the start and end of your writing project, and planning out all the major steps in between. For an essay, those major steps might become key paragraphs (or for an article, your subheadings). For a book, you’ll probably have chapter headings plus subheadings for those chapters.
The wrong way to do this is to sit down, write “Introduction” at the top, then try to hit each stage in turn. Unless you’ve already got a good grasp on your topic and idea, this is just going to get you stuck.
Instead, make a mindmap (or you can use another non-linear method, like writing each chapter heading onto index cards, if you want).
Put your topic or title in the centre of a sheet of paper. Write down key points as they come to mind, joining them to the centre. Link sub-points to a larger one; draw lines between related points. You can use different colours, symbols, whatever works for you.
This isn’t just a way to sort your existing ideas — it’ll also help you come up with new ones. As you start to get things onto paper, you’ll find more and more thoughts bubbling up.
Once you’ve got a mindmap, you can outline. I’ll often put numbers on my mindmap to indicate the order that I want to put chapters (or key points) in. Sometimes, I’ll just use the mindmap as my outline, if I’m writing a blog post.
Your outline doesn’t have to go into lots of detail, but it should include all the main chapters or points for your project: don’t leave big gaps in the middle in the hopes you’ll figure it out later. You might want to start at the highest level and gradually add in more information.
Outlining a Blog Post / Magazine Article
For a blog post or fairly informal magazine article, the outlining process might look like this:
- Create a mindmap and get all your ideas down onto paper
- Write your outline:
- Several subheadings or key points (perhaps with a link, quote, or other resource for each)
- Conclusion/call to action
Outlining an Essay
For a English Literature school/uni essay (I’m using Eng Lit because that’s what I studied; you can tweak this for your own subject) the outlining process might look like this:
- Select a question or topic, if you have a choice, then come up with an argument that you want to pursue (your lectures/books should help!)
- Go through the book/play/etc that you’re studying and write down key quotes that relate to your topic and your line of argument; do the same with books/articles of criticism — you’re gathering your evidence here
- Write a plan
- Two to four key points that you want to make, depending on the length of your essay
- A quote (or other example) to back up each point; you’ll definitely want a primary quote (from the text itself) and probably one from a critical work too (at uni level; you’re not so likely to do this in school)
Outlining a Non-Fiction Book
For a book, the whole outlining process might look like this:
- Create a mindmap where you jot down all your ideas that relate to your book’s title, or write each idea onto an index card or post-it note
- Group together ideas on your mindmap (or index cards on your desk) — maybe use colours, symbols, or numbers to help you organize them
- Start your linear outline in an easily editable format — electronic, not paper is definitely good here
- Begin by putting in the chapter topics/titles and try to get each chapter in place, even if you’re not certain about some yet
- Add in a few subheadings or key bullet points for each chapter; you might also want to include crucial notes (e.g. a book to read on that topic, an expert to consult) here
If you’re working on the book yourself, that’s probably enough; if you’re working with a publisher, they should be able to show you a sample chapter outline so you know how much detail to give.
Writing a Fiction Outline
Fiction is a little different. While it’s still a good idea to outline, you probably won’t want to plan out every step right at the start.
In non-fiction, your work is generally functional. It’s usually pretty clear what topics do and don’t belong in your book or article. For instance, if you’re writing a blog post on “How to grow great carrots,” you’ll know that a section on tomatoes isn’t going to fit in there.
In fiction, you’ve got a whole lot more scope. Anything could happen. You may know how your story or novel should start … but you won’t necessarily know what happens next.
Every time I’ve tried to write a start-to-end chapter plan for a novel, I’ve gone off the rails after about five chapters. Now, your mileage may well vary here, but my suggestion is that you don’t plan a major piece of fiction from start to end.
Outlining a Short Story
With a short story, it’s probably enough to:
- Know your major characters (probably just two or three for something short)
- Have a one-line description of each scene
- Know how it’s going to end (happily, unhappily, twist in the tale…)
You’ve not got much space to play with during a short story, which means that knowing how your characters get from A to B is important; that’s why having descriptions of the scenes helps.
Outlining a Novel
With a novel, your outline can be a lot looser:
- Know where it all begins, especially the links between your main characters
- Plan the first five or so chapters (so you don’t stall after a few pages)
- Mark out a few big plot points that need to happen during the middle
- Have at least a vague idea of how it’s all going to end
As you write, you’ll find that new ideas come to you — and some of the ones that you’ve planned no longer fit. It’s often work outlining on a micro-scale with a novel, perhaps by writing a quick plan for each scene as you reach it.
Fiction-writing is, generally, a much more intuitive process than writing non-fiction. I tend to be pretty uptight about plans in most areas of my life, but when it comes to fiction, I’ve learnt to trust much more in instinct and inspiration (and I’m prepared to do a lot more redrafting for fiction than for non-fiction).
So … your turn to create an outline! Today, find five minutes to start planning a writing project that’s on your mind. Jot down some thoughts, draw a mindmap, or play around with some index cards … and you should find that your ideas begin to come together.
I’m always very happy to answer writing-related questions here on Aliventures. If you’ve got a question, or an idea for a post topic, feel free to email me at any point (firstname.lastname@example.org) or alternatively, you can use the form on my Contact page.