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Part 7: The Anatomy of a Nonfiction Book Outline

We're inching toward greatness: we've reached Part 7 in our long-form blog series about writing a book for your business. The series explores actionable steps and insights for how you can turn the work you do in your business into a saleable book. New to the series? Begin here with Part 1.

Knowing the anatomy of a nonfiction book outline is vital for everyone. Even if you’re one of those types who likes to write your way into your book and let it unfold naturally in the style of E.L. Doctorow who famously said, “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way,” it’s helpful to know but then, adios, mi amour: you can bookmark this blog for later on and carry on to the next.

However, if you’re more comfortable having an outline– markers that light the way along your nonfiction book project writing that define the larger sections and smaller sub-sections– stick around and put on the coffee!

Having an outline and knowing the anatomy of a nonfiction book outline gives you a marvellous visual spine or a road map to follow, meaning once you have the points written down in an organized fashion, all you have to then do is fill in the blanks.

Remember the 5-Paragraph Jobbies of Your Youth?

Crazy though it sounds, the outline for a nonfiction book looks a lot like the outlines you had to make back in school: thesis statement, three main ideas, and then individual sections that support the main ideas, which support the thesis.

(Yes, my eyes just crossed too.) (Just kidding; I love this stuff!)

Here’s a heartening fact: while it may have been zero fun to write essays back in the day, they in fact were good training for this exact moment in your life: they taught you how to organize your ideas, partition out your thoughts into manageable, coherent sections, and how to approach the creation of a fluid overall development for a longer work.

essay outline at One Lit Place for

What bears little resemblance to the earlier essays is now you’re the boss. Not only is your book going to be longer, much more complex, and more elastic in its structure and development than a university five-paragraph essay, it’s also going to be stemming entirely or almost entirely from your experience and learning as an entrepreneur.

Now you’re the authority who is offering solutions, bringing in new ideas or new ways of thinking about old ideas, and you get to do it in a persona that’s warm and authentically yours. In short, writing this book will be exponentially more fun.


(Yes, I did say fun. Best to just roll with it.)

The following five steps are the anatomy of a nonfiction book outline in five stages (ribs?). Follow them and soon you’ll have a beautiful outline to spark the writing of your book for your business.

The Anatomy of a Nonfiction Book Outline

1) Beginning the Outline: the Big Idea

In order to create your outline, you’ll need to have your “Big Idea”: the overarching idea, or guiding principle, of your book.

If you recall in Part 3b, I discuss how to find and then refine your book’s subject.

By now, you should have a clear idea of the premise of the book you’re writing for your business, and how you are going to provide solutions for your customers and clients that meet them at a place they care about, that speak to how they can find a better way, or that touch the place where they feel vulnerable to help them heal.

(Consider the recent books that have come out to assuage the reader’s pain:

self help books stack at One Lit Place for

These authors have caught onto a particular audience pain point and are addressing it headlong with their knowledge and skill set.

What works about these titles is they’re engaging and strong; you might not have known you were walking around caring too much until you saw Manson’s book and thought, you know, I would like to give more of a f*ck! and spontaneously picked it up.

That big idea fronting your book will lead you to an exploration of how you will speak to the big idea, and that exploration will become articulated in the topics of the book.

2) How to Construct the Introduction

Now you have to explain- quickly and succinctly- why it’s going to be a worthwhile experience for the reader to read this book. The Introduction is where you sell the entire project.

The journalist’s opening paragraph 5 WH questions are going to all come into play here as you first hook the reader, then provide the why, who, what, when, and how.

scafolding samuel zeller at One Lit Place for

Photo credit: Samuel Zeller

  1. The Hook: your smart and sexy opening lines that metaphorically grab the reader by the back of the neck and smash her head to your book.* (It is only partially as aggressive as it looks in your mind). This can be an anecdote, statistic, quote or you can simply upend language and launch right into #2.
  2. Why is this book is different/special? Out of all of the books available on this subject, why should your reader read this book? What about it is special/unique? What about it is going to speak to her specifically in a way the others won’t or can’t?
  3. Who on earth are you to be writing this book? Even if you’re a household name, you will want to give your street cred plus speak specifically to why you’re in the position to be writing this book. What about the subject is personally important to you? What’s your story?
  4. What does your reader stand to gain from reading this book, and how will they emerge changed? What pain will you heal? What clarity and insights will you provide that they can apply to their own life and business?
  5. When– as in what time frame- or how long will it take for your reader be able to put these insights and tips into play in her own life?
  6. How can your reader derive the greatest benefit from this book? What does she need to do to see results?

3) The Book’s Body

Without thinking extensively or sweating much, write out your first pass of a list of things you will cover in order to support your big idea: how you will speak to the idea, what your clients/customers can do, and ways in which you suggest they try doing something differently.

A healthy list will probably have about 8-12 topics.

Remember this is your first attempt at an outline; the topics and order of topics will evolve over time as you write the book and realize that some material may be better suited attached to a different sub-topic, or you notice is off-topic altogether (which means you can save it for Book #2!). Your goal is to have a clear, clean, concise book that gives your reader a feeling of empowerment and agency from the warm arm you’ve put around their shoulders. For now, you’re road-testing the flow of ideas, their relevance in support of the Big Idea, and seeing how overall everything is developing toward clarity and results.

Once your information finds a more permanent order in the line-up, you should be aiming for having approximately 8-12 chapters.

wire mesh construction material ricardo gomez angel at One Lit Place

Photo credit: Ricardo Gomez Angel

4) The Book’s Organs

Under each of those sub-topics, write what you might say to support, illustrate, advocate, etc. those ideas. Consider the structure and layout of each chapter as mini introductions (with a what, why, and how). Much of the information you share will benefit from later research, anecdotes, facts and quotes from others in the field and famous people, and statistics, which you can attend to after you have an outline and most of a first draft of the book. For now, what do you know already that you would be in a position to say under each of these areas? Just worry about that for now.

5) Conclusion

A little placeholder here will be fine: thanks for coming and try the veal! Tip your driver! The conclusion will be the sum of your experience writing this book and will be most easy to write in natural order, meaning after the rest of the book is done. Let that lie for now. It’ll show itself over the course of your writing the book.

That’s it- the same darn outline as when you were young and life was simpler only now it’s your subject, in your voice, and on your terms. You’re writing a book to support your business, and you get to take as many liberties as you like as long as they’re in service to the book- and to your reader.

Plus, don’t you think it’s cute that I made the outline for writing an outline five paragraphs? (Come on, throw me a bone …)


Tip: using a worksheet may make this process even easier. Feel free to use the image of the outline above and modify it, get started with a writing software, or enjoy this nice printable worksheet.

Any time you wish to speak to one of our writing coaches or editors about the book you’re writing for your business, please reach out! We are happy to offer you a FREE, no-obligation consultation any time to help you get the book you want!

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