September 7

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How to Outline Your Nonfiction Book

By Boni Wagner-Stafford

September 7, 2021

#authors, #indieauthors, #nonfiction, #Writing

How do you outline your nonfiction book so you end up writing in a way that will keep your reader engaged? In fiction, you tell a story. If you do it right, your reader won’t be able to put down the book until they know what happens next. But what if you’re writing a nonfiction book that doesn’t necessarily have a clear story? Is your approach to outline your nonfiction book any different?

Always start with why

So you have a basic idea of what you want to write about and have done a ton of research. How do you organize everything into a proper outline so you can get writing, already?

As always, you need to know your “why”: your reasons for writing the book. Do you want to share your story to inspire others? Do you want to share tips or other tidbits of information to help others? Do you want to show your readers how to do something? Knowing this will help you determine the type of book you want to write, which in turn will determine the way you will outline that book.

I also find it helps to have a picture of some of the variations on the most common structure options for all books, including nonfiction.

The three-act book structure

One of the most common outlining structures—for fiction and nonfiction—is the three-act structure. It’s common because it’s effective: it’s easy for readers to follow, and it’s an easier type of structure for authors to create.

This three-act outline of your nonfiction book e can be thought of as beginning, middle, and end, not necessarily in that order. You can use the same three-act structure in narrative nonfiction such as memoir, biography, or travelogue.

Beginning, middle, end


The beginning is the set-up, where you set the scene. The middle is the confrontation, where your protagonist sets out on their journey and you introduce other main characters as well as the antagonist. (The antagonist doesn’t have to be a person but can be anything that presents obstacles on the protagonist’s journey: an addiction to overcome, for example. The confrontation part also covers the protagonist’s decision to overcome the obstacles and meet the antagonist head-on. The end part covers the resolution: the climax where the protagonist and antagonist face off and then the tying up of loose ends.

You can move the three parts around, starting for instance in the middle, then going back to the beginning before moving on to the end. That’s still the three-part structure.

But what if you just can’t recognize those elements I just described in your nonfiction book? Maybe you don’t see your nonfiction book as really telling a story (hint: they always are), or maybe your book is a how-to (prescriptive) or one of the other types of nonfiction?

What, how, and why

There are several other outlining structures that you can use in nonfiction. You’ll still organize your book into three main parts but now you answer three questions: the what, the how and the why. Here are some examples:

  • Chronology: With this structure, you explain different steps or phases in a process. One thing has to happen before the next thing can. It’s the classic structure for a how-to book. However, you can use it for any book where you need to present facts in chronological order, for instance the different phases of childhood development. You start with an introduction explaining the background – the what. Then you describe the steps or phases—the how—in the middle part. Finally, you end with the why: explaining the impact implementing the steps or going through all the phases should have.
  • Problem–cause–solution: This structure is especially suitable for a book that presents a big idea, such as a business or self-help book. You present a problem—the what. Then you describe what causes the problem – the why. Finally, you provide a solution: your big idea or the how. You can move these around to start with the why and then the what but your reader will most like want to know what the problem is – or that there is a problem in the first place – before they want to know why the problem is there.
  • Lists: Sometimes there isn’t necessarily a chronology to what you are writing about. You’re simply presenting facts that don’t have to be in a specific order: a list of ideas. Travel guides are usually lists but this structure can also work for business and self-help books. For example, you might write about the great habits to adopt to run a successful business. To make your list more organized and easier for the reader to follow, you can group the different items into categories: financial habits, communication habits, personal habits and the like. Overall, however, you once again have three main parts to your book: an introduction where you share the main message – the what, then the list categories – the how – and finally a conclusion where you reiterate the main takeaway for your reader and give them ideas on where to go from here: the why.     

Outline your nonfiction book

To start creating the outline itself, start with a list. List all the topics and ideas you want to cover. They don’t have to be in any logical order; you are basically brainstorming. Then follow these steps:

  1. Put the list away for at least a day. This gives your brain the chance to ruminate and make sense of all the information it has to process.
  2. When you come back to the list, start categorizing the items. Group them together in a way that makes sense to you: action steps, mindset, events, or whatever. As you do this, you’ll probably see some themes start to emerge: the what, why, and how.
  3. When you have a basic idea of what goes under the what, the why, and the how respectively, ask yourself, “Is there a logical order that my reader needs to have this information in?” Now you can move around the groups so that you first present the information your reader needs to have in order to understand the next bit of information.
  4. Once you have this basic outline, you can follow the same steps for each chapter: list everything you want to cover in that chapter and then organize it in order of how you want to present it to the reader.

You don’t have to stick rigorously to the outline you’ve created: you can revisit the outline at any time throughout the writing and editing process. However, having an outline in the first place will help you focus your writing and make sure you say everything you want to say.

What do you think?

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