I’ve recently written on how to write a good ebook. I’ve also made it quite clear that we are talking theoretical ebooks in general and not specific ebooks that might make themselves appear at Men with Pens for the mass public at any point in the immediate future.
Keeping this stipulation in mind, let us move forward and discuss an ever-critical aspect of ebooks, reports, and other documents long enough to get the organization of the thing confused: the outline.
Yes, I know. You probably all learned outlines in school, and I don’t mean to bring up any terrible memories for anyone, but it really is quite important and I promise to reference at least three funny and random things in the explanation, okay? Can we agree on three funny things? Five, you say? Let’s call it four.
Four it is. You drive a hard bargain. Much like a gypsy ironworker. (That’s one.)
Why You Need an Outline
Now, it’s sort of obvious why an outline would come in handy. If you’re writing about a lot of different sub-topics off of one main theme, it helps to put them in some kind of order so your reader feels like he or she follows your train of thought instead of getting shoved in the middle of a thirty-car pileup (that’s train cars, not car-cars. Stick with the metaphor).
Now, here’s the part that’s almost more fun than draping daisy chains over the heads of complete strangers (that’s two):
Most people, knowing that outlines are handy and useful and obvious, do not use them.
This is because it is widely known that anything obvious and useful must be easy to do away with. After all, everyone knows about these useful and obvious things, so clearly smart people don’t need them and can just skip right to the money-making part.
Sorry. I know we all want to be the geniuses who get to skip steps but unfortunately, that position has already been taken by my eleventh-grade physics teacher Mr. Rooney, who could go from zero to a quadratic equation that would boggle Einstein in his sockless shoes (that’s three) in no time flat.
Mr. Rooney can skip his outlines if he wants. You cannot.
How to Write an Outline
Theoretically we all know how to write an outline, but usually we do not actually know it insofar as execution is concerned. If a complete stranger walked up and asked, “Hey, do you know how to write an outline?” we would all snort derisively and say, “Of course.”
If, however, that person then handed you a piece of paper and a pen and asked you to outline your thoughts on any basic aspect of your regular life – let’s say, your household chores or the many annoying things your mother does around the holidays – you would probably be a little distressed. And embarrassed. You might also crave chocolate, but that’s probably unrelated (that’s four).
So here’s what you do:
Start with an empty Word .doc or sheet of paper.
Write down everything you can think of on the topic you’re about to write. You can do those brain cloud things if you want. Brain clouds involve writing a main topic, then circling it and branching lots of little topics off in their own bubbles to show that they’re connected. This is fine if you have some idea of your big topics. If you don’t, just free-form it. Write down everything you can think of, any and everything. Don’t worry about how it fits together.
Then make it fit together. Read the whole list and pick out the big umbrella topics. Make a nice, neat list of those and then list bullet points beneath those umbrella topics.
If you have leftover topics that don’t seem to fit anywhere, consider one of two possibilities: Either that sub-topic isn’t really that important, or you need a catch-all section at the end of your document for random things that don’t fit anywhere.
Both of these work. Some of the best ebooks have a random category at the end for things that are useful but not directly related to anything else. Don’t be ashamed of randomness.
There. You have your outline.
Next week, I’ll tell you how to get from one topic to the next without completely baffling your reader. It may contain more randomness. You never know.
Who else has fun ways to lay out a document?