5 reasons that authors should write a fat outline for every chapter

You know it’s smart to plan book chapters before writing. So don’t start by writing. Start by crafting a fat outline — you’ll save yourself anguish and improve your work with editors and other collaborators, too.

What’s a fat outline? It’s a skeletal layout of what’s going to be in the chapter, laid out in order with as much detail as you assemble. Formatting isn’t important in a fat outline, but content and sequence are.

For example, here’s a fat outline for chapter 10 of my upcoming book for business authors, which happens to be on research and data.

Chapter 10: Research and Data

Michael C. Bush case study (author with book based on collecting data from companies)

You need research to be credible

  • Scott Stratten: “The main part of our job is research”
  • Author survey: 84% did research beyond their own experience (surveys, interviews, web research)
  • Primary vs. secondary research definition
  • Data sources of published authors chart.

Make the most of primary research

  • Interviews with experts.
  • Case studies (reference chapter 9)
  • Quote vendors and competitors
  • Data.
    • SurveyMonkey surveys
    • Who to survey
    • Other data (e.g. Seth Stephens-Davidowitz Everybody Lies)
    • Diane Hessan book panel data

Secondary research requires judgment

  • Proof point nuggets (stats, quotes, survey results from others, published stories, analogies, metaphors
  • Constantly on the lookout for these
  • Google Tips
  • Emily Riley tips
    • “Google is like boiling the ocean.”
    • How to track down original sources
    • Tracking links. Vetting credibility. Accenture, Forrester, Pew, Gartner, etc.
    • Google Scholar
  • Wikipedia — don’t quote, use links for sources
  • Other people’s books

Avoiding inadvertant plagiarism

Notice a few things about this, as compared to a traditional outline. Like a normal outline, it’s in the same order as the chapter. But it also include random levels of detail, actual quotes, graphics, and links.

Why is this step essential? Here are five reasons.

1 It organizes your content

Typically, before you have a fat outline, you just have a collection of research bits: interviews, web links, quotes, graphics, and so on. The fat outline forces you to assemble that information into a story, the thread of the chapter. This helps you to see how all your pieces hang together, where you have redundant content, and where you have holes and need more research.

2 It’s easy to create, so it avoids writer’s block

Assembling a fat outline doesn’t feel like writing. It doesn’t require perfect grammar or flow. So it doesn’t set off the “What if this is crap?” feeling that insecure writers get before writing a chapter. It’s a low-stakes strategy to organize content. It sometimes takes me an hour or two to craft a fat outline for chapter, but if I get interrupted I can resume work easily And I can rearrange and edit things easily, too. It’s essential organizational work that doesn’t feel like “writing.”

3 It’s a crucial intermediate milestone for collaboration

I’m ghostwriting a book right now, and before I write each chapter, I create a fat outline and review it with my clients. It’s my way of saying, “This is what I’m about to write — does it make sense to you?” We go over the fat outline together. Their response might be, “That doesn’t seem to be right, you’re missing something.” Or just as frequently, “Wow, that’s a good way to put that concept — here’s some extra content that will help make that better.” Feedback at this stage makes it far more likely that they’ll be happy with what I eventually write.

The same dynamic applies with coauthors or editors: show what you plan to do and get feedback before investing in writing.

4 It makes writing far easier

Going from a fat outline to a draft is way less effort than writing a draft from scratch. You don’t find yourself staring at a blinking cursor in a blank document and worrying what comes next. Instead, you can just flesh out the outline, concentrating on writing style and flow rather than the structure of the chapter.

5 You can change it on the fly

When you’re actually writing, you sometimes have to change your plan. Two sections are too similar, and need to be combined, or rearranged. You come up with a brilliant idea that wasn’t in the outline and want to include that. You do additional Web research to shore up an unconvincing argument. No one is going to get upset with you for going off script. The outline is just a helpful scaffolding to build on, not a rigid plan you are required to follow.

Always do a fat outline first

Don’t write a chapter without a fat outline. It may seem like extra work — but once you get in the habit, you’ll see how it helps you write better chapters, faster, than starting with an empty document.

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