How Can I Get the Most Out of My Outline?

When you first decided you wanted to write a book, you probably pictured it flowing freely from you, the muse speaking through you about your particular topic of expertise. In a perfect world, this would be the case. Unfortunately, and more realistically, this “muse approach” rarely works. Writing a book is difficult—even for the most experienced of authors. A strong outline can be one of the most useful tools you can use to get you through the writing process. Unlike the muse, who can be a tad fickle, your outline will always be there.

Outlines get a bad rap. Writers think about them as a daunting to-do list instead of a positive tool. An outline gives you the opportunity to organize your ideas and helps you get a clear picture of what you want to say to your audience. When faced with writing an outline, keep in mind:

  • An outline can be a source of inspiration
  • An outline will help keep you on track
  • An outline is not set in stone

Be inspired

When thinking of an outline, you probably picture the outlines you were forced to write in high school or college—Roman numerals, uppercase and lowercase letters, numbers, and so on. But this is only one kind of outline. 

Any kind of visual tool you can use to map out your topics and how those topics fit together will work. While a more traditional Roman-numeral outline may work for you, you could also get creative and use an outline in the form of an inspiration board or idea clusters. This might look like simple words and phrases, arranged in order and indented to varying levels of hierarchy. Or it might look like ideas within circles that you connect with arrows or color code. What’s important is getting your ideas out there. Try to establish the shape your ideas will take. When you have this structure and shape, no matter what form it takes, then you have a place to start from. And if you’re comfortable with your topics, your ideas will flow more freely. Have fun with your outline. Let it be a source of inspiration and creativity.

Stay the course

An outline will help you stay on track and not get stuck when writing. When you begin your outline, start by identifying the main topic for each chapter. Then you can list the main ideas that go with each chapter—these will be your headings. Keep filling out information from there. The more detailed your outline is, the better it will serve you. If you have a road map, a clear path before you, you will have the ability to move around more freely in your working manuscript. Feeling uninspired about your topic for chapter 3? Move to chapter 7 instead. Having a clear picture of the topics you want to cover in each section will help you move around your ideas and navigate your topics more freely so that you don’t get cornered when drafting.

If you don’t have a clear plan, you may waste valuable time writing things that don’t necessarily pertain to the bigger picture. You could spend days on a chapter and then later realize that you strayed too far from the course, and all that work will have been for naught. A strong outline will help you avoid these kinds of mishaps as you write.

Change it

When coming up with your outline, it’s important to remember that the structure of your book can change. The outline is not a signed contract. As you write, you may find that what you thought you would cover in part 2 should actually be covered in part 3. This is fine! Think of your outline as being fluid; it should adapt and evolve to the project. Be sure to check in with your outline frequently as you write—reevaluate and edit as needed.

An outline is a tool that will give you clarity about what you are doing. It will reassure you that you have a cohesive plan and vision. It shouldn’t inspire fear. Instead, it should be a safe place, something to come back to for inspiration when you are feeling off course.