Some writers like to use an outline to formulate ideas onto paper while others avoid an outline like the plague. If you’re just starting out as a nonfiction writer, the most important thing is not to feel like you have to fit into someone else’s box. Allow your brain to write as it wants to—outline or not. Until you learn to unleash the creative juices in your psyche as part of your individual and very unique writing process, give yourself the freedom to write in whatever way works best for you.
As you begin to acquire published credits, however, you’ll discover that the first thing many nonfiction editors or agents want to see is an outline. They want to know exactly where your manuscript is going and how it’s going to get there. They can’t be passing around your entire middle grade nonfiction book for everyone to read in preparation for editorial meetings. They want an outline. Clear. Concise. Complete. No secrets. No surprises. And no frills.
I remember one of the first times an editor requested an outline. I gulped. I had pitched them my nonfiction idea for a middle grade chapter book. How in the world was I supposed to know what was going to happen in Chapter 4? That would come to me as I wrote, right? Maybe so, but the editor required an outline. This request forced me to sit down and pinpoint the progression of my manuscript from Point A to Point Z with every single step in between. It took me three months of solid research and careful thought to prepare that outline.
The result? A 242-page nonfiction book for kids that has now been reprinted in its second edition, A Kid’s Guide to African American History (Chicago Review Press). You can buy it in stores and museums across the country. Even the Smithsonian sells it! Without taking the time to prepare that outline, however, I wonder if it would have been such a success.
Even a 32-page nonfiction picture book benefits from an outline. I used to just write picture books and let it flow. Not anymore. Now I map out the plot line and structure before I ever write the first word. An outline helps guarantee that the internal structure of my manuscript is solid.
For longer nonfiction projects, I usually have several outlines. I prepare a short, one-page outline to keep the overall scope of my project front and center. I create a 3-D outline by placing file folders in a pocket folder—one for each section or chapter—and tuck in ideas and information as I go. I maintain a growing working outline on my computer that functions as my research assistant.
As I note ideas, facts, or information on this outline, I also type in footnotes so I can easily find the source of that research. When I wrote my newest nonfiction for middle grades, Jane Austen for Kids, my shorter, chapter outline was 8 pages, about one page per chapter. My working outline was 32 pages long where I kept more detailed notes. Building a working outline makes the writing process easier in countless ways. Try it and see!
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Disclaimer: The Nonfiction Ninjas are a group of writers with diverse ideas . The views expressed in each post are those of the author and may differ from others in the group.