‘I’ve got the skeleton of my book in place, but feel I’m limiting myself with it’.

‘I keep trying to work out what I want to say. It just doesn’t seem to flow’.

‘Where do I start with my outline? It’s all a jumble in my head’.

About to start writing your business book? These thoughts are normal, don’t worry. And to help you, this post will get you started with that all important planning step: your outline.

It doesn’t have to take long – in fact I find 60 minutes is usually ample.

Once you’ve got this in place, writing it will be so much easier because you’ll know what you’re going to say. I find that’s always a help!

What’s your type?

What outline you choose depends on what type of business book you want to write. That sounds kind of obvious, but it can be hard to see this when you’re lost in the details. So let’s take a step back and look at the four main non-fiction book structures:

  1. Transformational memoir. This is usually based on your story, and what your readers can learn from it.
  2. Step-by-step change guide. This is often based on a coaching programme, and is the method by which you help your clients and readers make their own transformation.
  3. Thought leadership book. This describes what you know, what you think and feel about it, and how your readers can take action as a result of what they’ve learned.
  4. Collection of interviews. This is a book based on other peoples’ ideas, with additional explanation and commentary from you.

Of course, there is some overlap between these groupings, but most likely your book fits into one more than the rest.

What’s your type? If you’re not sure, let’s look at each in more detail so you can see how your ideas and knowledge can best be put across. I’ll also give you a potted outline structure to get you started.

Transformational memoir

In this type of book you’re telling your own story of personal transformation, helping your readers learn from your experience.  This can be a powerful way of getting your message across, but the mistake many authors make is including elements of their story which aren’t relevant to their readers. By following this outline you’ll avoid this trap.

If you’re not sure how much of your story to include and how much to leave out, try this exercise. Take a sheet of paper and divide it lengthways. List the main points of your story on the left and the lessons you want to impart on the right. After that you can draw lines between the two lists to match them up, which gives you a great starting point for your book outline.

You can either tell your story chronologically or split it up into themes and ideas – both routes are valid, depending on your subject matter. Here, I’m using the example of a memoir based on a return to health after long illness.

Introduction: Give your readers an incentive to read this book. What will they learn? What’s the overview of your story? How is it relevant to them? What will they get out of it? This is a good place to bring out your personality so your audience gets to know you.

Chapter 1: What was your life like when your story began? You could begin before your transformation started (to set the scene), at the beginning of the process, or even at the end.

Subsequent chapters: chart the progression of your route to health, including the learning points for your readers.

Conclusion: An overview, plus help with what to do next.

Step-by-step change guide

This is a great structure if you’re turning your signature coaching or consulting programme into a book. By doing this, you’re gaining a whole new audience for it and giving it a massive credibility boost at the same time. Ensure your chapters follow the same order as your programme, so there’s a seamless join between the two.

I’m using the example of a book that helps people get rid of their anxiety.

Introduction: Name and describe your readers’ main problems, and empathise with them. Maybe you had these issues once yourself. Explain briefly how you’re going to help them solve it in this book. Convince them you’re the right person to advise them by explaining your credentials, and urge them to read on.

Chapter 1: Give the background information your readers will need in order to take their first improving step. This may take up more than one chapter. In my example this could be how our brains and bodies work when we’re anxious. It could also be step one of your programme.

Subsequent chapters: A new chapter for each step of your process, up to a maximum of around seven. You may want to follow a common internal structure for each chapter/step of the programme; for example, story/example, learning point, exercise and summary of main points.

Summary: You might need a chapter to pull all the learning points together.

Conclusion: What should your readers do next? Any additional resources you might want to leave them with?

Thought leadership book

These are more difficult to provide standard structures for, as by their very nature they’re more varied in their approach. However, there are still some principles you can apply to your inspirational book outline.

Introduction: Your reader has a problem or interest – that’s why they want inspiration to help them think about it. So empathise with their issue and explain briefly how you’re going to inspire them in this book. Share your credentials (why should they listen to you?) which might include some of your personal story.

Chapter 1: What’s the first thing you need to say to your reader, given the problem they have? Share your experience and take them through your first ‘solution’ in a step-by-step way.

Subsequent chapters: What’s the second (and so on) thing you need to say, to inspire them to get over their problem? Each main step needs its own chapter, up to a maximum of around seven.

Conclusion: End on a rousing note – this is your chance to get your readers to take action and make a difference in their lives.

Collection of interviews

This is a great style of book if you enjoy meeting and talking to people, especially as it makes compiling your content nice and easy. However, please don’t think that all it involves is transcribing some conversations and putting them into a book – you’ll want to make it compelling and meaningful for your readers.

An obvious format is to create a new chapter for each interview, but you can create themed chapters instead (including the relevant sections of the interviews in each). For instance, if your book is about how to take great photographs and you’re interviewing various photographers, you might want to take a themed approach, as many of them would give similar advice. But if you’re interviewing people who have different areas of expertise around a central theme, such as medical professionals talking about heart health, then a chapter per interviewee would work well.

Introduction: What will your reader learn in this book – what’s in it for them? Briefly, what are the credentials of the interviewees and how did you come to meet them (there might be an interesting story here)?

Subsequent chapters: Each interview or theme has its own chapter, with your introduction and summary topping and tailing it.

Summary: What have your readers learned? Make the points really clear for them, as the nature of interviews means they may have been obscured at points during the book.

Conclusion: What should your readers do next?

The best starting place of all

If you’re not sure where to start with your outline, begin with your readers. What kind of book are they looking for? And what do you know that will help them?

You’ll also find it easy to look at these, my previous posts in this series of the 6 essential steps to take before you write a word of your book:

Why some experts never talk about their business book

Writing your business book: how to love it

The surprisingly easy way to write for the readers who dig you

How to write the business book that hits your readers between the eyes

What you’ve just read is actually the fifth step you need to take, so you’re almost there!

Get going

So now you know what kind of outline you need, there’s nothing stopping you creating that all-important structure for your business book.

And if you could do with some more help with planning your book, my ebook The Business Line Outline Builder will be just want you need. It’s short, sweet, and holds your hand every step of the way. You can get it on Amazon UK here, and Amazon US here.






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