What is it that makes a great book outline?
The secret answer is that the key to drafting a great book outline is rereading and crafting an outline with the same care you draft and rewrite a book. So if you’re already capable of drafting an outline and you’re just looking for an edge to put you over the top then practice rewriting and rereading your outline (even out loud) to the point where it has the same polish and fluidity of your best books. But if you’re curious how and/or why to draft an outline on a more basic level then what follows should be of some use.
The first question to ask yourself is how you intend to use the outline. These uses will fall into three categories:
1. For Yourself
If you’re crafting an outline for your own use then an outline that qualifies as good is whatever you write that can get you up and effectively writing a book to the finish.
We’ve all heard of writers making outlines on cocktail napkins who go on to write classic novels from that napkin, so the point here isn’t always about creating the slickest outline, but in building an outline that works for you. (Tips for doing so further down)
2. Writing for a Client
If you intend to give this outline to a client then you need to have a more comprehensive outlook than you absolutely have to have when writing for yourself, although it’s still a good idea to write a solid outline.
When I co-author or ghostwrite a book the outline is typically the first piece of writing that a client will see from me. This means that the work better be clear and capture the essence of what the client wants to portray. Assuming you’ve already sat with the client, either in person or over the phone, then you should already have a clear picture of what they want.
Note: Be careful not to write the book you want to write, unless of course you’re writing a book for yourself and seek to draft an in-depth outline, in which case this section is for you too.
Where to Start Writing an Outline
To begin, disregard the lineal progression of the client’s story. I look through my notes, or my memory or recordings, and search for the book’s core, for its essence. Is this a book about faith? At it’s center, is this a book about survival and overcoming? Then I seek those episodes or events in the client’s life (assuming this is a memoir) and draft a chapter outline for these integral episodes.
How do you write a good single chapter outline? I’ll make another post dedicated to this question, but for our purposes it’s enough for a chapter outline for you to write a paragraph or two from a boots-on-the-ground perspective that walks the reader into the event in a novelistic way. Then, when that’s set, commit the greatest sin of good writing and describe what just happened and why it’s important to the book, usually including some bullet points.
Now you have a chapter outline. Draft five or six of these and re-read them together, like you’re reading a book, and you’ll start to realize in an organic way what segments are obviously missing to connect the episodes – what segments must exist so that these episodes read together and are not . . . episodic.
From there, consult your notes religiously, ask the client both general and specific questions related to the outline, interview those people relevant to the book, rinse and repeat.
When you feel confident that the chapter outlines work together to form a natural whole and that each chapter outline also describes why and what it’s doing then proofread, let it stand for a day or two, read it again, and send it to the client.
Don’t be surprised if your outline grows to twenty pages or much longer. Now you have more than a simple outline, you have the blueprint to a book.
Even still, you don’t need to be a slave to your outline.
3. An Outline for a Non-Fiction Book Proposal
Assuming that you’re working with a client then the outline you created above is the beginning of the outline you would send to a literary agent.
What more do you need? The answer is input and polish. The outline you drafted for your client has to be good, but it also has to be “just a draft” of an outline because the client should have input into the shape of the book, and they can’t have input on an outline until you draft the thing and give it to them. In this way the outline can be little more than a conversation starter, but’s it a conversation starter worth committing the time to draft.
I’m a big proponent of the maxim that “writing is thinking” so you should get to the writing part of this project as soon as you can, but you also can’t bypass this part of the work.
If the client is going the traditional route and seeks representation, and if they’ve given their opinion on the outline and you’ve made some considerations for their views, then begin drafting the chapters (you’re going to need them anyways for a proposal) and polish the outline to the point where each individual chapter outline is balanced with the others.
In other words, give each individual chapter outline the same fine shape and precision as the most important chapters and when all of them are strung together in an organic and logical way then the outline is complete.
Don’t make the mistake of imagining that your outline doesn’t have to read well because it is “just” an outline. The fact is that some very badly written outlines do get accepted by agents and go on to make good books, but don’t count on this happening for your book project, especially if someone else is paying you.