Tips for your outline

So, you’re in touch with an acquisitions editor, (or want to be), and the next thing on your book proposal to-do list is: Provide an outline. You immediately flash back to the last time you actually outlined something before you wrote it. High School? College? Or, perhaps you’re one of those methodically organized souls who sits down to write and produces an outline first. Wherever you are on the spectrum, your book’s outline is a critically important part of your proposal. Lately, I’ve had a few pretty experienced writers ask me for suggestions on how to get started.

If the outline feature in Word or Pages or some other organizational application seems more like a formatting tool to you than actual assistance, you are not alone. The very hierarchical structure can be helpful, and some people really can sift through their ideas using such things. But for the rest of us, these tools only help when we already know the topics we plan to cover and have a solid idea of how they relate to one another.

Here’s an alternative. First, make a list of the things you want to say in your book. These don’t have to be chapter headings or major sections—just points you want to communicate. Second, transfer each of the topics or thoughts on your list to a post-it note. The fun part comes third. Stick your notes to a wall or table and start arranging them. When you see things that are related to each other, put them together. Don’t worry about thinking through the structure yet. Just put like things together. Once you’ve done that, take a break. Seriously, put some space and time between you and the outline you’re working on. I’d recommend an hour at the very least. A few days doesn’t hurt either.

When you come back to your post-its, just stand and look at the categories (the post-it bunches) you have. Once you’ve reviewed them, start to move them. You will find that an order will emerge. When you’re happy with your sticky note outline, you’re ready to write it down in a single document. And once it’s down on paper, there’s only one step left before you submit it. See if your outline “matches” the audience you intend to reach.

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