How to write a killer chapter outline.
In your book proposal, the chapter outline is where you reveal your book’s shape: how it unfolds for the reader, chapter by chapter. It is one of the five key components of your nonfiction book proposal. (The other four are the overview, author biography, marketing/platform, and sample chapters.)
Also known as a chapter overview or chapter summaries, your chapter outline goes deeper than simply listing your chapter titles, but stops short of being a full fleshing-out of the content for each chapter.
Chapter outlines are my kryptonite. I find it way too easy to just keep writing, until I’ve just about written the whole darn book!
In reality, each chapter should be captured in about 300 words. For a typical book, the total outline will be around the 3,000-word mark. (Although for some business and personal development books, I’ve seen chapter outlines as long as 5,000 words or more.)
Where to start?
Naturally, you can’t write your chapter outline until you’ve figured out your book structure. (Check out this blog post for some tips on structure.) Once you have that figured out, you’re ready to tackle your chapter summaries.
State the name of each chapter (as well as sections/parts, if you have them.) Beneath each heading, summarize the goal, content, and flavor of that section. Be specific yet concise. Use lists, bullet points, and anecdotes if you like—anything that will make it clear and engaging. If you’re planning to use visual material such as graphs or charts in the book itself, say so in the outline but don’t include them here.
You might include a quote from each chapter at the start of each summary, or a pithy insight that captures the point of that chapter. Consider these questions and try to convey the answers in your chapter summary:
What will the reader get out of chapter 6?
Why is it there?
What does it achieve?
How does it connect to chapters 5 and 7?
Think of your chapter outline as a complement to your sample chapters, which are a slice of the book itself. Chapter summaries should be written in the style of your book: sassy, reasoned, uplifting, whatever you’re aiming for. Give careful thought to your chapter titles: they should be grabby and enticing, not dull labels.
“Even if you haven't decided 100 percent on what will be in each chapter, settle on something for the publisher to get a strong sense of what you are thinking.”
—Geoffrey Stone, nonfiction editor
When Josh Bernoff wrote a proposal for his book, Writing Without Bullshit, he handled things a little differently. His book is structured in 32 chapters, split into 5 parts. He gave a pretty detailed description for each of the 5 parts, but listed the 32 individual chapters as titles only. After all, he had a lot of them and the chapter titles were catchy and self-explanatory.
Bernoff’s outline starts like this:
Writing Without Bullshit will include 186 pages plus end matter. There are 32 short chapters.
Part I: Why writing without bullshit matters
I hate bullshit because it destroys our ability to get things done. It pollutes our world with meaningless drivel, interferes with clear communication, and leaves everyone depressed. But it’s curable. It’s a matter of attitude, process, and skill. To master these, you must understand why bullshit happens and how we all became immersed in it. And you must adopt the Iron Imperative: The reader’s time is more valuable than your own. (7 chapters, 40 pages)
1. Why I hate bullshit
2. How word pollution kills productivity, energy, and trust
3. Sturgeon’s Law: Why 90% of everything is crap
4. Why there is so much more bullshit now
5. Everything you learned about writing was wrong
6. The Iron Imperative: Do not waste the reader’s time
7. How writing without bullshit helps your career
And so on. His total outline ran 4 pages in this way.
Josh Bernoff also writes about a great planning tool called a “fat outline.” This is a planning tool that includes quotes, graphics, insights, statistics, rough paragraphs, and anything else you might want to include in your chapter. That is a standout planning tool that I use all the time when I write manuscripts. What you include in your book proposal is not that. But the two kinds of outline work together so that when it comes time to write your book, you’re so well prepared that the writing itself becomes insanely easy.
If you need more help with writing your non-fiction book proposal or if you’re interested in my other services, please view the tab “Services” on my website.
Coming in 2022: my new online course on writing book proposals! In the meantime, check out my course on building your author platform:
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