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How To Outline A Non-Fiction Book So Readers Can’t Put It Down

    Categories: Writing

By their very nature, many non-fiction books have the clear intention of helping their readers. Author and ghostwriter, Joshua Lisec, shares tips on how to meet that goal so that your book is widely read and recommended.

The Official Steps to Non-Fiction Author Success:

Write.
Edit.
Publish.

If you’ve read any non-fiction advice articles recently, you probably got some version of that advice. It makes sense in theory. You’re an expert in your field. When you decide it’s time to write your book, shouldn’t you just starting writing, then keep writing until you’ve exhausted your mental library?

Well…

No.

What if simply sitting down and typing whatever comes to mind is the worst way to write your non-fiction book?

What if brainstorming what you would like to write about leaves you with a manuscript that only your parents and pals want to read?

As a Professional Ghostwriter of over forty books, I’ve learned (and taught) a thing or two about how to write a page-turning, mind-opening non-fiction book. The difference between a book that sells a few dozen copies and one that gets word-of-mouth marketed across the world is all about the way the author outlined the book. I’ll explain.

I want you to think about a non-fiction book you cherish. The one you bought extra copies of so you can share with colleagues and clients. Got it? Of course you do! You’ve highlighted and sticky noted so many of the book’s pages you’d you’re studying for an exam. You’ve downloaded quote cards from the book as reminders of how you should live, move, and be in the world.

Now I want you to think about the last book you didn’t finish. Takes a few moments to think of it, doesn’t it? The book wasn’t terrible. Just…forgettable.

Based on my and my authors’ lived experience, I can tell you why your fave book holds your attention to this day while that “blah” book disappeared behind the bookshelf when your cat hopped up there one day.

The world’s best non-fiction authors write their book for you—not for them.

Yes, an author pens a manuscript based on their background, ideas, and true-to-life experiences. Yet their ego is not the intended audience—your heart, mind, and soul are.

This insight brings us back to the number one mistake I see aspiring non-fiction authors make on their first draft (and all too often the final draft). These enthusiastic writers consult their mental library of experiences, ideas, and understandings, throw everything onto the page, and try to make heads and tails of what goes where in the book.

It’s a tough task. It’s also unnecessary.

The non-fiction books you’re going to recommend to family and friends for the rest of their life could not be further from these mosaic manuscripts. The authors you admire wrote their book at the intersection of what they wanted to write about and what people like you wanted to read.

Imagine a Venn diagram. In one set is everything the author could have written. In the other is everything readers in their chosen book category desire from future books.

The most emotionally compelling books exist at that intersection.

And that’s exactly what you will take away from this article—how to outline a non-fiction book so the final draft is something you can be proud of because readers can’t put the thing down.

Step 1: Mind Map

Now is the time to get out your favorite coloured pens and journals or your laptop and let your mind roam. Feel free to freewrite.

What you won’t do is stare at page after page of notes and wonder where the book starts or ends.

Instead, use a free mind mapping software like MindMeister to organize the topics, subtopics, examples, and calls-to-action that could make an appearance in your non-fiction book.

Let’s say you’re a self-improvement expert. Take your notes over to MindMeister and type your book idea in a circle. Next surround your idea with specific topics you could cover in the book. For example, if you’re writing a productivity book, your topics could include routines, diet, exercise, and time management.

Go back to your notes and look for subtopics, sub-subtopics, and even sub-sub-subtopics. Everything goes in your mind map. For example, your routines topic could eventually be two chapters, one covering a morning routine and the other your evening routine.

Then the evening routine chapter talks about getting ready for tomorrow, journaling away your worries, enjoying a quick meditation, and optimising your sleep. The sleep section could go on about tips to fall asleep quick, stay asleep all night, and wake up on time and refreshed without an alarm clock.

As you can see, your mind map is fast becoming a first draft outline!

Just like that, disorganized, disjointed notes become the makings of a real book. That said, you can expect to feel an eensy-weensy bit overwhelmed upon finishing your MindMeister map. How can you possibly go from a mind map and a journal to a first draft? Well, you won’t. Not yet at least.

Before an entrepreneur develops a new product, they do their homework first. What do customers want? Where are the unmet needs right now? How are existing products failing to satisfy consumers?

In the next step, you’re going to think like an “authorpreneur.” You’re going to do your research to find out how you can turn your mind map into a manuscript that makes people wonder, Where have you been all my life?!

Step 2: Research

In step one, we found out what all is in your set of the Venn diagram—that is, everything you could write about. Here in step two, we’re going to discover what your future readers want from books like yours. This way you’re authoring a book with broad appeal, a book you know for certain that people want to read.

Let’s head on over to our friends at Google. In keeping with our productivity author example, let’s google “amazon bestselling productivity books.” The top search result directs you to the Amazon bestseller list for that category.

Click four the highest ranked Amazon bestsellers in your category and scroll down to their reviews. Why four? Because if you go the traditional publishing route with your non-fiction book, you’ll be expected to present an industry standard book proposal to a literary agent, an acquisitions editor, or both. Your book proposal will include a section on competing titles where you must explain how your book compares to four popular books in your category.

One of my ghostwriting clients as a CEO of a top European reputation management company. In the authentic reviews and ratings industry, it’s common knowledge that very good (five star) and very bad (one star) reviews are not perceived to be as credible as middle-of-the-road reviews (four, three, and two star). Entrepreneur and The New York Times have both published research supporting this hypothesis. When consumers scroll down a page of positive reviews, they wonder if perhaps they’re too good to be true.

Of course I don’t mean to imply that you should assume every five star and one star review is paid promotion. They’re not. For aspiring authors who’d rather be writing than reading reviews all day long, this tip is merely the shorthand way to find the reader feedback you need to write a marketable book.

Step 3: Exclude (Or Include)

“I know exactly what readers want.”

Not a sentence a first-time non-fiction author should ever be heard uttering. Even the most experienced and astute writers may mis-guess which topics their book should cover and which it shouldn’t. That’s why third-party feedback from your future readers is a better standard for judging what to include in your book.

And who knows! Perhaps you’ll find out that readers in your category are begging for a book on a topic you know a lot about but hadn’t considered. Happens all the time with my authors.

Author: “Really? People want me to talk about that in my book?”

Ghostwriter: “Yep, over two hundred and fifty reviews say the exact same thing: ‘I bought these other books hoping they would cover Topic X but they never did.’”

What’s your Topic X?
The idea, method, or approach your future readers are hankering to read about that you are uniquely suited and qualified to discuss? Let’s find out! Comb through the four, three, and two star reviews on the top four bestselling books in your category. Search for two specific sentiments:

“Hoped they would’ve’s”

“Wish they hadn’t’s”

When I go to a top productivity book, I find these reviews:

See the pattern? “Disappointing,” “nothing new,” “some useful advice.” These readers all feel like the productivity book overpromised and underdelivered. One reviewer explains how the author brushed over too many topics. Other reviewers felt like the book contained too many personal accounts from the author without having a “how-to” system or framework.

For your book project, copy and paste all relevant reviews word-for-word into your favorite word processing program (mine’s Google Docs). Once you’ve scoured reader reviews for the top four bestselling books on Amazon, it’s time to open your mind map again.

Based on customer feedback, which topics should you exclude from the book?

What topics do readers want to see you discuss that haven’t made it into your mind map yet?

For example, several productivity book reviewers expressed disappointment that bestselling books did not present a productivity system. Lo and behold, a system does not make an appearance in our mind map! We’d better structure the topics so the book is step-by-step, not here’s-a-tip-there’s-a-tip.

What else do we find in the reviews? One reader did not seem too pleased that the productivity book they purchased went on and on about time management. What topic is in the mind map? Yep, it’s time management.

If we want to ultimately write a non-fiction book that readers like these blokes can’t put down, what must we do? Strike that topic from the mind map—and from the ensuing outline—or include time management as part of a how-to productivity system.

Oh, what was that word I just used? Outline? Yes, the outline! After you’ve completed this process of elimination (and inclusion!), you have yourself a marketable, salable book. Well, its outline at least.

These three steps to outline your book may take up your next few writing sessions. Trust me—and my international bestselling authors. It’s so worth it to allot a few hours now to customer research so you can write a smashing book…than to skip this step, crank out a so-so book nobody buys, and wonder what the heck happened.

Because when you outline, write, and publish a book that people want to read, something strange and magical happens.

They buy your book.

Have you thought of using mind maps to thoroughly outline a non-fiction book? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.

Every day Joshua Lisec helps authors manifest the mission behind their voice. He is the founder of The Entrepreneur’s Wordsmith LLC, Ohio’s first Certified Professional Ghostwriter, a multiple-time #1 International Bestselling Ghostwriter, a Forbes Contributor ghostwriter, a TEDx speaker, and a two-time published novelist.

Since 2011, Joshua has ghostwritten forty books and has been featured in TED, TEDx, BBC Radio London, Foundr, American Express, Yahoo!, Fatherly, The Huffington Post, the Nonfiction Authors Association, and numerous other outlets. During a recent podcast, Dilbert comic creator and New York Times bestselling author Scott Adams recommended Joshua to aspiring authors who need help writing and publishing a book.

[Mind map image in sharing graphic from BigStockPhoto. All other images copyright Joshua Lisec.]

[For more tips on writing non-fiction, check out How to Write Non-Fiction: Turn your Knowledge into Words by Joanna Penn.]

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View Comments (7)

  • I have thought about it. Just haven't done it. In fact, Joshua recommended to me years ago to do just that. He is certainly consistent.

    I have downloaded Mind Meister and shall begin using it.

    Thanks Joshua & Joanna.

  • The blog is an eye opener. After 15 years of practising Yoga & Meditation, I have developed a certain expertise in my area of study. When I decided to publish a book, I went ahead and wrote the book, got it professionally edited and proofed. The interiors and cover were also professionally designed. When my book went live, I made 2 sales the first month. I got one review on amazon and that was it. I tried to get more reviews, but my book was very niche and did not find many readers. I tried https://usabookreviewers.com and now have dozens of reviews and am also seeing some sales. The ebook integrates well with my YouTube channel and website. Looking forward to a busy Christmas season..

  • Thank you Joshua. This is very timely post, as I am currently outlining my second non fiction book.

  • Reviews definitely result in more sales/downloads. Imagine the reader psyche, you can grab their interest by book cover, description and reviews to create interest/curiosity in the few seconds that the reader takes to decide whether to get the book or no. You can use honestbookreviews.com for reviews.

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