When you sit down to write a book and you realise just how much bloody hard work is involved, and you're staring at the Blank Page Of Doom in despair, you're stuck.
You get nowhere.
And it's nigh-on impossible to get started again.
But hey! How about if I told you I did have a secret weapon that could be the key to defeating procrastination, anxiety, fear, and generalised woe?
It's *whispers* an outline.
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No school essay misery, just a sure-fire way to beat the Blank Page Of Doom
When someone like me declares that you must outline your book/article/sales letter/wedding vows, does it conjure up images of chilly school classrooms and misery-food?
Does it make you want to stick two fingers up at me and tell me to do one?
Yeah, I hear ya. I remember those days, too—and I hated writing outlines. They were so… restrictive. And unnatural. And boring.
Why couldn’t I just dive in?
I don’t know about you, but I was told I must outline because otherwise my writing would ramble drunkenly across the page, stopping off for the odd fight and getting sidetracked by a comfortable-looking chaise-longue.
My teachers were right, and so were yours… But what they didn’t tell me was how much flippin’ easier sketching an outline would make writing the damn thing.
If they’d only told me an outline could cut my writing time by a third or more, I’d have been all over it.
If they’d told me an outline would be my best weapon against procrastination, fear, anxiety, and confidence woes, I’d have been doing the Snoopy Dance.
And if they’d given me a technique like the one I’m about to give you, I’d have been even delighteder.
Why We Outline
We outline because, in my experience writing lots of books and helping other business owners write lots of books, we often get stuck before we even start.
Then we get stuck again part-way through the book, and getting started again is like one of those dreams where you’re trying to run but your limbs are made of lead and they’re stuck in toffee. (Which sucks, right?)
One of the worst feelings in the world, as a writer, is sitting down in front of that blank page and having to crowbar words out of your brain and onto the paper. It’s a tall order to write a book at all, let alone just open a blank document and start.
We outline because we need to know exactly what we’re going to write and why.
Our outlines are what will get us through procrastination, anxiety, and creative blockages. They’ll help us kick our Inner Dickhead into touch when he gets too noisy. And they’ll keep us on track when we’re in danger of going off-piste into avalanche country.
I’m assuming, here, that you’ve already decided on your Big Book Idea and that you know why you’re writing your book. If you don’t, go and read this article about how to come up with your Big Idea, and this one about why you’re putting yourself through this exquisite experience.
Quick Recap Here
Open a new document in Scrivener, Word, Google Docs—wherever you do your writing. Create the following headings:
- My Big Idea
- My Book Compass
- My Readers
- My Goals
Under those headings, note down the following:
- In one paragraph, describe your Big Idea, who you’re writing it for, and what you want your reader to be, do, have, and feel when they’ve finished. What will they get out of it?
- Fill in the blanks here: “I will use my book to reach [my ideal reader audience, e.g. beauticians] by showing them [Big Book Idea, e.g. how to market their salons], which will enable me to [my goals, e.g. work with high-value clients and cut my working hours in half].
- Who’s your ideal reader? Describe them briefly here, and remind yourself of your Ideal Reader Avatar. What’s the big problem your book will solve for them? What pain does it cause them?
- Why are you writing this book? What do you want it to do for you? Help you find better clients? Cut down the number of tyre-kickers? Enable you to raise your fees?
It’s crucial to remind yourself of this stuff before you sit down to write your outline because it informs all that your book will become. Don’t skip it.
Now it’s time to start your outline. I promise it’ll be fun, and I promise you’ll have a valuable document you’ll refer to again and again. Ready?
Think about your Big Idea. What are the main topics you want to talk about? Create two headings:
- Big Idea Topics
- The Lint Trap
Put all the thoughts that relate directly to your book’s Big Idea under heading 1. And any other ideas that pop into your head that aren’t directly related go into the Lint Trap. They are fluff that’ll distract you from the true purpose of your book, so you don’t need it now—but it’ll come in useful later for articles, blog posts, maybe even a future book.
Don’t worry about the order for now; just get your Big Idea Topics down on paper.
Let’s say you own a fashion clothing shop and your Big Idea is to write a book to help people invest in clothes that really suit them and make them look and feel fabulous. Your main topics might be (in no particular order):
- Body shape
Here’s an example from a real book—How To Sell A Crapload Of Books by Tim Vandehey and Naren Aryal—which is divided into 10 “secrets” for chapters:
- Rule of 10
- Rule of one-half million
- Build on what you have
- Local celebrity strategy
- Pull don’t push
- Synergy rule
- Create sharp sexy intellectual property
- Find the X-factor
Don’t worry about how many chapters you have at this stage; it doesn’t matter. It only matters that you write down the main points you want to cover, and they they move your reader (and you) towards your goals. You can change the order later.
Finding The Details
Next, you’ll take the first of those points—the first chapter—and break it down even more, very briefly. Just like this:
- Chapter Hook: what’s the big idea for this chapter? Why should I read it? What problem or pain is it solving—or what exciting thing is it teaching me? Include a story or anecdote to set up the chapter.
- Chapter Takeaway: what’s the crucial takeaway for this chapter? What do you want your reader to be, do, have, and feel when they’ve finished it? What action do you want them to take?
- Chapter Subtopics: what are the main points that fall within this chapter? List them below.
- Supporting point
- Supporting point
- Supporting point
- Supporting Stories: what stories do you have to back up your content? From your own life, your clients’ lives, or stories you’ve found elsewhere? Note them down here, and link them to your supporting points.
- Signpost Next Chapter: how does this chapter link to the next one? Tie the book together so your reader slides smoothly from one chapter to the next.
Let’s use How To Sell A Crapload Of Books as an example. The first chapter is “Platform before book… way before”.
- Chapter Hook: This chapter starts with a story about one of Tim Vandehey’s clients, action film star Tyrese Gibson. Gibson’s book How To Get Out Of Your Own Way went straight into the New York Times bestseller list—and when it fell off that list, he tweeted his 3 million followers to buy it so it popped back on. Thus illustrating the importance of building a platform before you start to sell your book.
- Chapter Takeaway: start building your platform long before you publish your book. Take the steps they suggest.
- Chapter Subtopics:
- Planting isn’t harvesting (once you’ve set up your platform you must build it).
- The Four Cs (consistency, constancy, co-ordination, connection).
- Getting traction.
- Volume, volume, volume (publish a shitload of stuff).
- You got game (it takes time).
- When to start (publishing, internet, social, media, relationships, appearances).
- How long things should take.
- Supporting Stories: parallels with planting a garden; Dan Zarella of HubSpot on press releases; Michael Hyatt on expertise.
- Signpost Next Chapter: This book actually doesn’t signpost the next chapter—but they could have done, by linking the importance of a platform to the fact that selling books is always ten times harder than you think it’ll be… hence chapter 2, “The Rule Of 10”.
Quick But Not Dirty
Once you’ve done that for your first chapter, repeat it for all the others—and BAM! Your book is all-but-written. The quick and not-so-dirty way to outline your book in just a few hours.
All that’s left to do is turn those notes into beautiful prose—and you’ll have written your book faster than you ever thought possible.
Does it feel like you might be able to beat the Blank Page Of Doom now? Can you kill the Procrastination Panic?
You have everything you need here to outline your book—but if you’d like actual downloadable templates you can fill in quickly and easily, you can grab those from my resources area.
Don’t let fear, anxiety, and procrastination stop you from writing a fantastic book. Start small: step by tiny beetle step. Build your book using an outline as your foundation. Throw a comment below and let me know how you’re getting on.
And if you're ready to take the plunge and write your book for real, hit the button below and get a copy of How The Hell Do You Write A Book now.
Start Writing Your Book Today
If you want to learn more about how to write, self-publish, and market a book for your business, snaffle yourself a copy of How The Hell Do You Write A Book? Then check out the blog and podcast for more articles and guides. If you want a little (or a lot) more help, find out how you can work with me.
Vicky Fraser is the founder of Moxie Books and author of How The Hell Do You Write A Book and Business For Superheroes. She helps business owners write books, connect with readers and new customers, and grow their businesses. When she's not doing that, she's hanging from a trapeze by her feet.