From Twitter posts to blog posts, the outline of your book may already exist in the content you’ve shared.
You have expertise in your field; you have the spark of an idea for a book; you even have time set aside to write that book. You’re all set to go! Then the time comes for words to go on the page, and you realize something that brings you to a halt: how do you translate a single topic or concept into a full-length manuscript? Where do you start?
When an author begins to write a novel, she’ll often start one of two ways: either she’ll freewrite and let the plot and characters develop as she goes, or she’ll create an outline first. While the first method is certainly romanticized in writing circles, the vast majority of writers opt for the latter option.
The use of an outline is even more common for those writing on non-fiction topics. Before you can begin to share your knowledge, you need to figure out what you want to share.. You might remember having to create outlines in high school for your English class essays. While they may not have been the highlight of your writing education, those outlines can be quite valuable, especially when you have the potential to write about a lot of different ideas. After all, if you had to give a thirty-minute talk at a conference, you wouldn’t try to explain the entirety of your field in that time. You’d pick a single topic, figure out the key points for that topic, and proceed from there.
But how do you decide upon those points? The answer may lie in the content you’ve already produced for your website and social media posts.
Take a look through the writing you’ve done over the past year or two. Were there any posts that garnered a lot of attention? Were there any frequently asked questions at presentations you gave? These are the topics that people are interested in, and chances are you’ve already spoken on them at length. Gather up these pieces of writing and compile them in a document. You can create a spreadsheet and organize the writing by audience and overarching topic.
Now that you’ve compiled your various posts and FAQ answers, do you see any common themes emerging? This is your chance to hone in on your book’s core message. Maybe people are interested in the intersection of your environmental activism and your small business consulting. Or perhaps your blog post about increasing diversity in the workplace led to a longer discussion about how to reach out to non-traditional students at job fairs.
Don’t worry if the theme isn’t immediately obvious. Often, we become so immersed in our area of expertise that it can be challenging to see the bigger picture. Reach out to your support network, whether it’s family, friends, or coworkers, and ask them to take a look at your list of topics. As outside observers, do they see anything that sparks their interest?
Once you’ve compiled your list of topics and found an overarching theme, start playing around with an outline. Are there any topics that naturally segue from one to the other? This is also an excellent time to try out some early-stage drafting. If there’s an idea that you like, but you’re having a hard time grasping it fully, getting your thoughts down on paper can help you figure out exactly where it fits. Don’t worry about writing for your audience at this point or making it polished; this is just to help you navigate your book’s structure.
Your outline can be as loose or as detailed as you need it to be. Once you feel like you’ve structured as much as you can, get writing! Make sure to use lots of headings and subheadings in your draft, even if you plan to take them out later. Those headings will help you quickly see what’s in your book and make it easier to move sections around. Keep returning to your outline as you write—it will help you stay the course as new ideas pop into your head. You’re on your way to writing your book!