Organizing Ideas into an Outline

The bridge between brainstorming great ideas to fill the blank pages of your book and coherent writing that communicates your message to readers is a detailed chapter-by-chapter outline.

But how do you begin to organize all the puzzle pieces of ideas?

Organizing Ideas

Organizing Ideas

Write down your random ideas

Like someone preparing to solve a jigsaw puzzle, you need to gather your ideas without worrying how they fit together. Collect your thoughts on a piece of paper or type them down the page of a Word document. If you must, scribble on a napkin as creativity strikes. Decorate your desk with post-it notes. Just capture the ideas and spread them out like puzzle pieces on a table.

When writing my first book, Questioning Your Doubts: A Harvard PhD Explores Challenges to Faith, I thought of illustrations and concepts that helped to communicate the main concepts in a certain chapter. I knew those ideas would shape the paragraphs yet to be written, but I needed more time to figure out how to make those ideas flow together. My first step was to capture those ideas and polish them into gemstones in their own isolated and random paragraphs. The process of stringing the gemstones together to make jewelry would come later.

Look for relationships between ideas

How do you begin to work a section of a jigsaw puzzle? I usually start by grouping together the pieces with similar colors or the pieces that have complementary shapes. Like a jeweler preparing to make a bracelet out of polished gemstones, I think about patterns. Before writing an outline for a book, I consider the relationships between the ideas in the chapter. Do I need to present the ideas in a chronological order? Should I arrange concepts next to each other in a way that creates contrast between different ideas? Should I build reader interest by adding a little suspense into the chapter, carefully delineating the problem before sharing the solution?

This grouping process helps me begin to write sections of an outline and start to order the sections of the chapter. If I have created paragraphs in the chapter itself, I cut and paste my ideas and write a few transitional sentences. I am on my way to filling those blank pages.

Make the central idea the focal point

The key to ordering the puzzle pieces correctly often involves finding that one central piece that helps you place all the others in the right place. In making jewelry, a jeweler will often select one gemstone as the focal point. When I write an outline, I ask myself what idea is the most important for the message I want to convey? Depending on my organizational pattern, that idea may need to come first, last, or even in the middle of the chapter. Placement of that idea is not about position so much as focus. Every other idea in my chapter will drive attention to that one main concept. Once I choose my central idea, the chapter outline falls into place. Writing the chapter is now as easy as filling in the blanks underneath each section of the outline with supporting details.

For non-fiction writers, a chapter-by-chapter outline is an essential component of the book proposal you will send to publishers. Deep into the publishing process, that outline may help you make structural changes to your book in order to sharpen your message. However important the outline may be to editors, think of that outline as a gift to you. It is your map through the thick forest of your ideas, keeping you from wandering off the path, and safely leading you to your destination. It will help you meet your deadlines on time and keep the ink flowing onto those blank pages. The time you spend writing your outline is an investment. So, go ahead, open the box, dump the puzzle pieces onto your desk, and outline your next book!

What method do you use to organize your writing?