When Non-Fiction Writers Should Use A Fast Outline – And When They Should Use A Slow Outline

The dynamic outlining process that we’re working through at the moment can be used to produce a detailed structural outline for a non-fiction book.

What I want to address in this post is when non-fiction writers should produce a fast outline, and when they should produce a slow outline.

What’s The Difference Between A ‘Fast’ Outline And A Slow ‘Outline?

If you are planning a new project the dynamic outlining process can be used to power through the outlining process. Depending on the complexity of your project, it’s possible to produce a detailed working outline in 4 to 6 hours.

That’s a ‘fast’ outline.

[Read more…]

How To Outline A Non-Fiction Book – Assignment 2 – More Questions On What Your Book Is About?

 Last week I posted Part 1 of my series of articles on a Dynamic Outlining system I’ve developed for myself which will also work for other non-fiction writers. If you’ve not read that article you can check it out here:

How To Outline A Non-Fiction Book – Assignment 1 – What is your book about?

Answering the questions in Part 1 should give the prospective author an overview of his book, and make him think about the following topics as they relate to his or her book:

  1. A sketch paragraph of what the book is about
  2. An idea of who the book’s intended audience is
  3. What will the intended audience learn from your book?
  4. How will the intended audience implement that learning?
  5. The reasons why you are writing your book
  6. A list of similar books already published

In Assignment 2 we’re going to ask questions designed to elicit much more information about what your book is about.

The Questions For Assignment 2

Here are the questions for Assignment 2:

  • What is your book about? (I know we asked this in assignment #1 – see the guidance notes for more info.)
  • Visualize your book via the ‘Hollywood Movie Game.’ (Again, more in the guidance notes.)
  • Make a list of all the topics that could be included in your book
  • Make a list of all the topics that are related, but shouldn’t be included in your book.

Guidance Notes – General

In Assignment 1 the questions were designed to get you thinking about your book idea first in general terms, and then in specifics such as what audience are you writing for, what do you want them to learn, how are they going to implement it and so on.

Because you’ve already done some thinking – and hopefully made some notes! – about these questions you’ll already have some focus on what you want to achieve with your book. That’s the reason that the questions on what you want your audience to learn and how you want them to implement the learning were in Assignment 1.


The goal of Assignment 2 is to get down on paper (or computer file) most of the ideas that will eventually form the structural spine of the book. We are not yet concerned with ordering them, or prioritizing them. Or doing anything else other than getting them from your head and onto a piece of paper (whether physical or virtual).

Guidance Notes – Q1 What Is Your Book About?

We covered this in Assignment 1 – but it doesn’t hurt when considering the questions in Assignment 2 to recap here and write a sketch paragraph that contains the following information:

  • What your book is about (the 30,000 foot view)
  • Who it’s intended for
  • What the intended audience are going to learn
  • How the intended audience are going to implement that learning

Paul’s Note: on my template, the questions in Assignment 1 are all on different ‘cards’ in my Scrivener template….so this is a chance to recap these pieces of information on the same page.

Guidance Notes Q2 – Visualize Your Book Via The ‘Hollywood Movie Game.’

In Hollywood story meetings, ideas for new films are routinely batted around. Hollywood shorthand describes “new ideas” in terms of what is already familiar.

In this reductive process Alien might be described as Jaws in Space.   Or Hamlet meets Born Free could describe the Disney smash The Lion King. Or Clueless is Emma (Jane Austen) meets (Insert Name Of Any US High School Coming Of Age Film).

Hopefully you get the picture?

Now in Assignment 1, Question 6 asked you to make a list of similar books that had already been published. It’s possible that you can visualize your book in terms of one or more of these books. Or one of these books combined with a process.

Let me try and give you some examples so you can understand this clearer. Let’s say you are writing a non-fiction book on how to avoid resistance by using a systematic task process. That might be described as The War Of Art (Steven Pressfield) meets Getting Things Done (David Allen).


Or let’s say you are writing a book on the benefits of creating your own audience and the different stages that this audience you’ve built go through from someone who doesn’t know you to someone who becomes a ‘true fan.’ That book might be described as Tribes (Seth Godin) meets Primal Branding (Patrick Hanlon).

The point of this question is to get you to visualize your book as a mixture of other books and ideas. Looking at your book from this angle can give you important insights – especially if you read widely outside of the genre/topic you are writing in and are using ideas from other genres.

For example, let’s say I was writing a book about how to write blog posts. And in the Hollywood Movie Game I visualized my book as Learning To Write Blogs meets The Suzuki Method for Violin. If you know what the Suzuki Method is, that throws up a number of intriguing questions – and could give your idea an unorthodox and unique slant.

Guidance Notes Q3 – Make A List Of All The Topics That Could Be Included In your Book

Answering this question is where you start to brainstorm the topics that could end up in your book.

Don’t try and filter your ideas – if you have an idea that you think is only mildly related to your book and probably won’t make the cut when we get to structuring in more detail…..jot that bad boy down. I’ve written a post on ‘Supplemental Book Material’ and what you can do with it that I’ll publish here on The Spoon.


You want to add as much material to this question as possible. This question probably isn’t one that should be answered in one sitting. I’ve written a post with my thoughts on this too – Slow Outlines Vs Fast Outlines – that I’ll publish soon as well as the Supplemental Book Material post.

One method I use for this stage is to Mindmap this on a piece of A3 paper. Or even better, a piece of butchers paper (or art roll paper). I cut a piece to fit my kitchen table – 5 feet by 3 feet – and mind map on that. My kids think it’s hilarious when I’m doing this and try and sneak in and write their own ideas onto my mind map!

Index cards is another way that can work for this.

And a further way to goose the thought process is to go to those books you listed and wrote about for Question 6 in Assignment 1 and check out the Table Of Contents if they have an online preview available. That’s always a good way to generate more ideas. (Note: you are not plagiarizing as you are not copying their content – you are using the chapter topics and sub-topics from other books to suggest topics and sub-topics for your book that will be filtered by the unique way that you view this topic.)

If it takes you a couple of days of thinking, doodling, scribbling and jotting down notes to go through this question…that’s totally OK.

Guidance Notes Q4 – Make A List Of All The Topics That Are Related But Shouldn’t Be Included In your Book

Whilst you are brainstorming topic ideas you will come up with ideas that don’t quite fit the vision you have for your book.

Don’t discard the ideas.

As you’re answering Question 3, you should be simultaneously answering Question 4. Any related topics that you know won’t be included should be written down here. That material – as you’ve probably guessed – is yet more supplemental material. And to recap from above, I’ve written about this and will be publishing shortly.

For now take my word that this is valuable material that shouldn’t just be scrubbed. Write down every idea.


Assignment 2 of the outlining process for your non-fiction book has 4 questions for you to answer:

  • What is your book about? (I know we asked this in assignment #1 – see the guidance notes for more info.)
  • Visualize your book via the ‘Hollywood Movie Game.’ (Again, more in the guidance notes.)
  • Make a list of all the topics that could be included in your book
  • Make a list of all the topics that are related, but shouldn’t be included in your book.

Each of these questions has a specific purpose, which is spelled out in more detail in the guidance notes.

Assignment 3

Assignment 3 of the dynamic outlining process will be along in a few days. So will the articles on Supplemental Book Material and Slow Outlines Versus Fast Outlines.


If you have any questions about outlining non-fiction books please post them below or drop me an email.




How To Outline A Non-Fiction Book – Assignment 1 – What Is Your Book About?

In the previous two posts I talked about the 7 Reasons Non-Fiction Writers Should Outline Their Books, and then I talked about the unique circumstances that led me to create (and subsequently refine) the dynamic outlining system for non-fiction that I use.

Over the next series of posts we’re going to dive into that system in enough detail so that if you want to write a book you can use this system to create a detailed structural outline that will maximise the chances of you successfully completing your book.

How To Use This Series Of Posts

The best way to learn anything – or test anything – is to actually use it. So I highly recommend that you copy and paste the questions to a new Scrivener project – or a word doc if you haven’t yet invested in Scrivener – and spend some time answering the questions.

Each stage of the process has a series of questions that you – the author – need to answer. Each of your answers will take you a step closer towards completing your structural outline.

The questions will be presented first – and then I’ll go through each of the questions and give you guidance notes on how to answer the questions

The Questions For Assignment 1 [Read more…]

How I Discovered An Outlining System For Non-Fiction Writing

In the last post here on The Spoon I talked about The 7 Reasons That Non-Fiction Writers Should Outline Books. If you’ve not read that post, then click that link at some stage and check it out – there’s some important information in there.

I’m shortly going to be going through in detail the outlining system that I use when writing a non-fiction book. Before I start detailing the different steps of that outlining system I wanted to write an introductory post detailing how I came up with the system that we’re going to work through.

First though, let’s answer a question:

Why Do You Need An Outlining System For Non-Fiction Books? [Read more…]

The 7 Reasons Non Fiction Writers Should Outline Books

If you’ve spent any time hanging around fiction writing circles you’ll know there’s what seems an uncross able divide between two different types of writers

That divide is whether fiction writers outline and plan their books in advance of their writing (plotters); or whether these writers apply the seat of their pants to the seat of their chairs and ‘make it up as they go along’ (pantsers).

There doesn’t seem to be this kind of divide for non-fiction writers. Most non-fiction writers seem to be in agreement that you need to prepare some kind of outline before you start the actual writing.

Systemizing The Outline Process [Read more…]