book writing outline non-fiction

Book Writing Outline

There is a chasm between how novice and expert authors outline and write their book. Now, a lot of people writing a non-fiction book approach their writing like this:

Have an idea, start brainstorming, attack it with gusto, have too much content, rearrange it, find an angle, hire an editor, editor does a review and two rounds of changes, mould a final book, write blurb, hope it sells.

I used to be one of those people, so hey, I get it. But then I thought, what if I put some planning and research into those steps… would that help?

Steps in Planning and Writing a Book

Step 1:  Book Research. Find an angle that is a small gap or difference to other books on topic. Ask yourself questions. Determine reader type and purpose of book.

Step 2:  Brainstorm and mind map your topics. 

Step 3:  Outline. In a Google Docs draft, write the outline and summarise each chapter. Decide here on length of book and then length of each chapter. You could also use Scrivener, if rearranging sections and using references. 

If research will be part of your book, start collecting cool ideas and research results. Look at comparative and competitive books and find the gaps. 

Step 4:  Start writing with the research, quotes, and creative ideas, on the topics in each chapter. Be mindful of structure. See if you can add useful reader resources in some of the chapters.

Step 5:  Self-editing. Check chapter lengths. See if the creative content is on par with original reader wants and needs. 

Step 6:  Feedback. Get beta reader feedback and integrate what seems right to you.

Step 7:  Take a fresh look, make it as logical a flow as possible, also check voice is consistent. 

Step 8:  Send to editor for their copy editing work

Step 9:  Integrate the editor’s comments and finalise. Fact check/Copyright check.

Step 10: Typesetting. Send for formatting or do it yourself, if you know about book layout.

Advantages of Writing a Book with an Outline and Purpose First

When you do valid research and tap into what readers are looking for in the initial stages, you’re not just starting from your mind. This information can start to influence all the content of your non-fiction book and even the length or complexity of the book. 

For example, Dummies guides are usually 90,000 words and are all of a certain format, to break up the points, but some readers are daunted by that large a book. For them, it’s better to get three easy-to-start ideas from a small book, than to put off reading a much longer book. They might prefer a step-by-step type book that is clear and uses the author’s experience of the topic area.

Novices, if you want to have helpful, multimedia resources that inform about the stages of creating a new book and marketing it, just subscribe to a 9-month, AU $129 membership of BOOK CREATION SUCCESS

Another advantage of doing your research up-front is that you will be able to write on the ‘right’ topics: ones that readers want to read but are currently complaining they are not getting from other books. For this reason, reading other competing books’ 2-star and 3-star reviews is a great starting point. 

Let’s find out why a thought-out book writing outline and purpose is best.


Before writing a book, you need to ask yourself questions. These are:

  • Do I live and breathe this topic, so it will be easy for me? (Or say, for history/biography, can I research easily enough?)
  • Will I be wanting to talk about this area in speeches for one or two years?
  • Does this topic and my thesis/angle make me feel like I’m contributing something fresh to the world?
  • Will the writing of this book lead to some greater things, perhaps some joint ventures?
street team reviewers
Photo by Helena Lopes on

Audience Research

After some research, you might have noted some things typical readers have said they wanted. But what about misconceptions in this area? And what does your typical reader think of social media? Do they read the news? Are they left or right leaning? Would any of their kids, should they have them, be sent to private schools?  The more you know your readers, the better off you are. 

Pausing to think of all this, you can write out a half-page on your Typical Reader Profile

Now it’s time to write a purpose statement for your book. There are often myths that you can set about dispelling. Or there might be something even more controversial you can uncover. Just a few lines to unpack the real reason the book you intend to write is needed. Feel free to get impassioned!


First, go big with as many sub-topics as you can and then narrow down your topics in line with an angle and intended audience’s needs. If it’s a history book or biography/autobiography, then you will probably map out ideas in a chronological manner. 

Some of us like to draw a mind map with coloured pens, and this helps our brain naturally connect and order topics.

These two steps — brainstorm and outline — can be done in the same sitting. 

You can get a pro writing coach to help you outline and guide your book formation over a period of six months. Just have a look at the book development program! Or, join our free Book Creation Facebook group.


In Google Docs, it handily keeps an outline to the left as you get started with topics. In Word, you can just use a Table of Contents format from a simple book template.

Remember your initial research and mind-map topics as you begin to outline the sections. Think about what you have read and pick out the emotive points. 


After all your research and brainstorming, keep the topic starters (outline) to hand, but don’t worry over certain things. Don’t fuss on how it sounds, typos, or what other statistics or biography notes to put in the early part… just get writing and don’t look back!

You want to have momentum with a first draft. You can add more detail and check things in the self-edit. You might leave a gap if there is a diagram or model you want drawn, rather than fuss around drawing it and losing lots of time. I have a pyramid picture in my recent book and got a freelancer to make it rather than attempting it myself. Very quickly, it was done!


It’s not just important to check your sentence flow. It’s also important to go back to see if the important questions the typical readers had (or the controversial topic you found) is still in your book. Is your main theme shining through, or is it getting a little lost?  Time to keep picking up the thread and hit the promise that you made in your book purpose statement.


Your writer friends will help find loose threads and tell you if your theme has wandered. They may not know how to fix things, but if you instruct them well, they will be able to tell you if your theme is coming across. Some may say if your intended reader will be: a) intrigued/happy or b) put out.


When leaving the manuscript two weeks, your fresh eyes will be able to tackle those holes and problems with voice which your readers may have found. Voice consistency means you don’t write we, then you, then him/her. Get an editor’s help if unsure.

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Another big benefit to your back pocket is, if you’ve done these steps thoroughly (alone or with a writing coach), your manuscript may only need copy editing. Or if the structure is still a little wrong, at least you are seeking some advice on how to fix it.

Copy editing is much cheaper than structural (substantive editing), as it looks at the line-by-line errors.


Now, if you have a sterling book editor, then you will be made aware of the need to write an ‘about the author’ and ‘preface’ (about the book) section.

Copyright section: if self-publishing, you will also write this. If using Draft2Digital ebooks, then your About the Author and About the Publisher can go on the outside of the book.

Editors’ comments are usually based on grammar rules and audible flow, so if you disagree about many of the changes, question whether this is because their formality level is different or their understanding of the book is different to yours. 

Some editors are rigid, authors tell me, and some don’t look at the work as whole. As an editor, I believe that occasionally rules are made to be broken… if it suits the purpose of the work and reader needs. Some rules in grammar have become outmoded, so hiring someone up-to-date with these changes is ideal.


Book typesetting means such things as lining up bottoms, doing the best for widows/orphans, and ensuring balance when setting chapter heads. Unless you’re gifted at this yourself, or your first book is a simple one, then probably don’t attempt it. I was once a desktop publisher and I still forgot to justify the lines of my first book. What a dummy! In other novice books I have seen squashed line spacing (called ‘leading’), abysmal to read, although I did not buy the book to find out. 

It is another cost to bear, so you may be tempted to cut corners here. But from experience I can tell you that using an amateur book designer still means later work.

It is for this reason that when helping authors, we only use Professional Typesetter/Designers, in our pro publishing packages.

Thanks for reading — and if you want to get support while writing a book deigned for self-publishing, then have a look at the online Book Creation Success Club.

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