Published Podcast Ep. 22 | Creating a Strong Book Outline with AprilJo Murphy

In today's episode, we are excited to interview Greenleaf editor AprilJo Murphy about creating a strong outline for your book to target the right audience and enrich your writing process. April holds a PhD in English and Creative Writing and works with authors to refine their voices to reach their audiences.

1:30 Why don’t you start by telling us a bit about what you do here at Greenleaf?

  • As part of Greenleaf’s ethos as an author-focused hybrid publisher, our editors play somewhat of a hybrid role as well. We work with authors who may not have manuscripts yet, who just have a strong desire and idea for a book.
  • We work in traditional editing where we take a finished manuscript and refine it with detailed copyediting and proofreading, but we’re also able to meet our authors where they need us.
  • We also offer editorial consulting, manuscript development, and book coaching, as well a whole host of in-between services. That’s really fun as an editor, and it’s a rewarding way to treat our authors as partners.

3:30 Let’s say you’re working with a standard Greenleaf author who has their audience figured out, at least to a degree. How do they get started outlining?

  • There are generally two ways to outline. When people usually think about an outline, they often think of an English class where they had to diagram an essay. An outline is really a roadmap to help you visualize your content.
  • Authors should start with a list of topics they want to cover. They can do this in list format, or in word clouds or another method that feels useful.
  • You need to think about your audience and what their pain points are, what excites you as an author, and your market and competitive titles to make sure you can illustrate your expertise.

5:30 What are you looking for when you assess an outline to decide if it’s in good shape or if it needs a little finesse?

  • A book is a self-contained universe. I’m a huge believer that anything that exists inside of a book, whether it’s a footnote or a text box, must serve a purpose. It either entertains them, informs them, or provides them with some kind of action or idea they need.
  • In the outlining process you may uncover content that doesn’t quite fit. It’s a B-side. If it doesn’t fit in this book, it can go in a blog post, an article, or if you’re lucky, it can be the foundation for another book.
  • When you’re trying to start writing, there are three questions that are important to ask yourself. What do I want to say? Why does this need to be said by me? Why does this need to be said now?

8:30 It’s possible for authors to get stuck in a vacuum. Is there a way for them to see if topics will resonate with their audience?

  • Many authors who are coming to write their books, especially those who have a speaking or entrepreneurial background, already have quite a bit of content. You can take self-inventory by going over your blog posts and articles to see what got a lot of attention.
  • If you don’t have a lot of content for feedback, think about what your goals are for the book. You should have some guiding principles to use the book to show the reader, “I am informed, experienced, etc.”

10:30 Are there other considerations for authors as they decide how granular or broad to go with their outline?

  • If you’re working with an editor, a traditional outline is probably the most useful way to go. It starts out with the main topics, then goes down at least three layers to sections and sub-sections. It helps editors to guide your writing and advise you on what sections to work on when you're feeling tight for time or uninspired.
  • If you’re working with a non-traditional outline it’s much more difficult for an editor to guide you because they don’t know where you’re going. If there’s one question to determine if an outline is good enough, it would be “If someone didn’t know anything about this topic, could they tell from the outline what the book is going to be?”
  • If you think about the outline more as a tool than a task, it will be helpful for you along your journey.

13:40: In your experience, is the “crossword puzzle” method of skipping around your outline a good approach, or is it better to write in order?

  • I look at this from two different minds. Many authors I’ve worked with have found it useful to start with at least the first chapter because it usually contains the heavy philosophy.
  • When authors get stuck, a non-linear approach can help them break through and get content flowing again. Some authors prioritize content that relates to what they're doing in their professional lives no matter where they are in their manuscripts because it's fresh in their minds, especially for case studies.

17:00 Once they have their outline complete and it’s time to write, what are the best ways to stay on track?

  • The first bit of advice I have is to stop thinking of themselves as someone who’s trying to write a book and to think about themselves as someone who is actively writing a book. As soon as they self-identify as a writer and an author, they will take ownership of the book.
  • As with anything else in your professional life, your writing time should be accounted for, at least five hours a week.
  • Some people also work well in boot camp settings where they write notes and outline for half an hour every day, then spend a couple of days a month writing the bulk of their content.

19:15 Let’s say they do carve out 5 hours a week. How long does it take most authors to get through a first draft?

  • Eight months to a year and a half is probably standard. I’ve had authors do it quicker, but they did a lot of what I would consider pre-writing materials.
  • If an author has a good outline, we work through the outline, then they go out and write the first chapter and we see how long that takes. Typically it’s 3-4 weeks. Once you know that, you can look at the outline and say, “I have ten chapters, that’s ten months.”
  • I encourage authors to think of their first draft as the sloppy draft. It has to be sloppy or you’ll never finish it.

22:40 Any other advice or tips for someone entering the outline stage?

  • A lot of the time when I start working with someone who hasn’t started working on the book yet, they have a really nebulous idea of their audience. They’ll say the book is for everyone and don’t want to sell themselves short with a specific audience, but you sell yourself short when you don’t have a specific audience.
  • It becomes harder for people to find, to place, to hear about and share your book if it doesn't appeal to a specific audience. If you can think about the goals you’re trying to achieve with your book, you’ll be able to determine which audience you’re speaking to, which affects the content you choose to write.

About Editor AprilJo Murphy

AprilJo Murphy comes to Greenleaf after earning her PhD in English and Creative Writing at the University of North Texas. She has worked for a variety of publications in editorial and research roles, including many literary journals and the Encyclopaedia Britannica. She enjoys helping authors discover and refine their voices so that their ideas effectively reach their audiences. April is an avid reader, writer, and explorer of Texas State Parks.