5 Steps for Effective Outlining in Non-fiction

5 Steps for Effective Outlining in Non-fiction

Not only can outlining help lubricate your writing, it can save you huge time and effort (by avoiding unnecessary writing and by helping you focus) and can get buy-in from key players and users you consult along the way (and who may have ultimate approval of what you write).

Follow these steps to get an outline you can use. Tweet this quote.

 1. Describe Purpose

  • describe user/ reader/ audience — who, what, when, where, why:
    • purpose
    • education level
    • context/ when they’ll be using it
  • list goals and learning outcomes*

 2. Brainstorm Content

  • list facts/ points specifically

 3. Match Content to Purpose

  • fill in any missing elements
  • strike extraneous content, that which doesn’t address the purpose

 4. Sequence Content

  • usually, work from the known to the unknown, most important to least
  • group like items
  • start with specific and move toward general (or opposite)
  • order it step by step


If you wrote nothing more, the user/ reader would have a decent starting point in hand.

 5. Revise Outline from Feedback

 photo of people standing at junctures of steel scaffold

Get stakeholder input at this point, for maximum efficiency and efficacy. Ask target users for feedback. Ask peers and subject experts if the content matches the purpose (as you did in Step 3) and what should be added or omitted. This helps avoid spending time on material that doesn’t move you closer to the goal, and buoys the integrity of your product. This review step also builds a sense of collaboration among those who have influence on your product and on its later uses.


As you write and continue to get input, return to this outline often. Ask Does this suggestion honour (fit) the goal? before making any revisions. Be critical yourself, too; kill your darling content if it doesn’t support the goal. You’ll have somewhere else to use it, one day.


*Laughter is a perfectly fine goal.

Read more about outlining from Geoff Hart, who likened outlining to building the frame for a house.

Find more resources and advice for writing and getting your project to “press” in the Client Kit.

Photo by Danielle Defrancesco, used under CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

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