How to do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.
How do you write a book? One chapter at a time.
Confession time. When I first started writing books I would just sit down and write. It’s a method that worked well for me in my early years as a newspaper reporter. The articles were short, and when writing for a daily paper on a deadline, you just don’t have time to create an outline.
But one day, when discussing writing books with my son, he told me I was doing it wrong. Now those of you who are parents are chuckling as you read this—and you also know that the most annoying thing is when your children are right.
Long story short, my son convinced me that I needed to start outlining my longer work before I started to write. I tried it a few times, and he was right. Outlining helped to keep me on track. It kept my thoughts in order, kept me from exploring every rabbit hole my mind fell into, and it kept my characters from running off and doing their own thing without my permission.
Don’t panic! You don’t need a formal outline like you were taught back in English class with Roman numerals and capital letters, although I must admit, that’s the type of outline I prefer. Make your outline in any way that feels comfortable to you. You aren’t getting graded on this outline and no one else, except possibly your editor or writing coach, needs to see it.
I know several writers whose “outlines” are post-it notes or index cards with one topic or idea written on each. The cards are then laid out on a large surface and arranged and rearranged until the order feels right. Other writers prefer the “mind map” (a graphical way to diagram or outline your ideas).
It doesn’t matter what method you use, you need to decide how many chapters you will have and what basic information will go in each chapter.
One Chapter, One Theme
In addition to your overall theme of your book, each chapter should also have a mini-theme or purpose that works to enhance and move the reader forward in understanding the overall thesis of your book. If you are writing nonfiction, now is the time to think about what material you want to include in your book and in what order it should be presented. For example, if you are writing a book on digital photography, the purpose of Chapter One might be to introduce the reader to some of the basic options available in digital cameras. The purpose of another, later chapter could be to discuss different exposure options.
If you are writing fiction, develop the basic plot of your book and the characters. Write a few sentences or a paragraph about what will happen in each portion of the book. Many fiction writers also find it helpful to write a short description of each of the characters.
Your outline is an organizational and memory aid only. Spend only enough time on it that in a couple of weeks or months when you are ready to write Chapter Six you don’t need to spend a lot of time figuring out exactly what you planned to write about. Taking some time now to outline your book will make writing it go faster later on. But don’t spend too much time perfecting the grammar and style of your outline. One person may need only a few words or phrases to remember what is planned for each chapter. Another may need to write full sentences or paragraphs.
In your notebook, or computer set up pages for your introduction and each of your chapters. You may also have a conclusion and notes on a glossary or reference section. For each chapter, you should note the title, the theme and a summary of the contents.
Once you finish your outline you can finally get to the exciting part—sitting down and writing your book.