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Write a Book Outline in 6 Simple Steps

blank notebook page and pens so you can write a book outlineDo you have an idea for a book, workbook, course, or other significant writing project but are unsure how to start? If so, this article is for you. Using the steps below, you can learn to write a book outline, transforming your idea into a working document from which you can then draft a manuscript. I use the word “book” throughout, but the same steps can apply to any longer writing project.

For your reference, my assumption in this article is that you plan to self-publish. Some considerations will be different if you want to publish with a traditional publishing house.

How to Write a Book Outline

Step 1: Think of your audience and key message.

Knowing your audience is an important first step because considering the reader throughout the writing process will ensure what you’re providing will help them.

Ask yourself the following questions—and write your answers.

  • Who will benefit from this body of work? (See Step 2.)
  • What is the key value you’re providing?
  • What problem does your book solve for your reader?
  • What is the key message you want your reader to know?
  • What topics will you write about that build the key message?

I urge you to know this information before you start writing your book.

Step 2: Decide how long you want your book to be.

Considering your audience is also important when determining your approximate word-count goal. Is your typical audience member a busy professional who would value a book that is as concise as possible? A working mom with young children who might not have time for a full book and would prefer an action-oriented workbook? Or a hyper-analytical professional who loves taking a deep dive into a topic, so they can feel like they’ve mastered the content? Set your book’s word-count goal according to what will best suit your audience.

If you’re wondering how to estimate this information, know that each standard page of text has approximately 250 words. This means that a 50,000-word manuscript would be approximately 200 pages, while 20,000 words equals about 80 pages.

Step 3: Choose a target page count for each chapter.

Keep in mind that shorter is often better. I’ve edited books that had snappy three- to four-page chapters as well as books with 30-page chapters. More commonly, the goal is somewhere in between. After you choose a chapter page-count goal, do the math to determine how many chapters you will need to write based on the book’s length, as estimated in Step 2.

An author I recently worked with set a goal of approximately 10 pages per chapter. This target helped us establish the scope of each chapter and facilitated a more efficient developmental editing process than if we approached each chapter with only the topic in mind rather than both the topic and page-count goal. As it did for us, doing this exercise will give you a solid reference point when you decide how to structure your chapters. The page-count goal, however, is not etched in stone. It’s simply a guideline to help your outlining process go more smoothly.

Step 4: Write your chapters in a list.

Literally—just write “Chapter 1,” then “Chapter 2” underneath, and so on. This is like hitting the Easy Button. There’s no pressure on you! You are not adding titles or content yet.

Step 5: Brainstorm your chapter topics and consider what order to present the information.

Now comes the fun part! If you’re writing on a topic that has a clear process, then sequentially ordering the content would make sense. But there are other options, of course. Chapters might be organized as case studies, thematic topics, in chronological order, or otherwise. Brainstorm the approximate number of topics based on the number of chapters you estimated you’ll write. Again, this is just a guideline—you might have planned on eight chapters but end up with 10.

Step 6: Assign your topics to each chapter that you’ve listed.

Use a pencil or write digitally so you can rearrange topics as needed. Under each chapter title, jot down notes that encompass key information you want to present on each topic. For instance, if you have a chapter on networking, perhaps your notes might read “informational interviewing, importance of following up, setting a schedule and goal, differences between networking for employed and unemployed job seekers.” The objective is for you to gather your ideas, so you have them for easy reference when you start writing each chapter.


At this point, take a moment to pause and reflect on your progress. To help your idea take shape, you decided to write a book outline, for which you considered your audience, set goals for the book and its length, and created a rough working document. From this point on, you can start drafting chapters. You are well on your way to having a manuscript draft! Congratulations!

Heidi owns and operates Career Path Writing Solutions, a communications consulting firm dedicated to helping individuals and businesses communicate when it matters most. She delights in helping job seekers navigate career change and guiding business owners to present their value proposition persuasively. Heidi earned her PhD in history from Duke University and teaches professional development for various university programs and organizations. She holds certifications in resume writing, interview preparation, and empowerment coaching, and sits on the Certification Committee of the Professional Association of Resume Writers and Career Coaches.

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