If You Hate Outlining, Here’s an Alternative

Perhaps you cringe whenever you hear the word outline. OK, so just let that word go. Let’s talk about planning your book manuscript instead.

Ideally, you’ll find a way to plan that allows you to:

  • See the book’s big ideas at a glance.
  • Spot and fix structural problems before writing hundreds or thousands of words.
  • Create a table of contents that hooks reader interest and helps to sell your book.
  • Divide the manuscript into smaller units that you can write one at a time.
  • Make a smooth transition the process of writing your first draft.
  • Avoid writer’s block.

Fortunately there is a method that meets all these criteria. I call it the TPQ method—an acronym that stands for topics, points, quotes. This method yields the benefits of a traditional outline, minus the pain.

1. Topics

In essence, the table of contents for a nonfiction book is a list of topics. To keep it simple, devote each chapter of your book to a single major topic. When you’ve got a list of chapters—with titles that are just as compelling as the title of your book—your project is well under way.

2. Points

Good nonfiction books include subheadings within each chapter. To gain clarity, write subheadings as complete sentences. Think of each subheading as one of the main points you want to make about the chapter topic. Again, make your subheadings work as hard as your book title and chapter titles.

Your list of topics and points is a working table of contents and high-level summary of your book. It’s also something that you can show to people—a way to elicit feedback from people before you finish a first draft.

3. Quotes

While researching your book, you consult sources. These are works by people who have already spoken or written about your chapter topics.

To complete this step, gather the key quotes from your key sources. Then copy and paste them under the relevant points.

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The result of this process is a long document that empowers you in three ways.

Your document has a simple structure. There are just 2 levels of content: topics and points. This is a favor to you and to your readers. The easiest books to read—and write—have a flat structure. Trying to structure your book as a series of topics, sub-topics, and sub-sub-topics yields more confusion than clarity.

Your research is right where you need it. The juciest direct quotes from your sources are right at your fingertips. You can write directly from your TPQ document instead of trying to dig up all those sources.

The blank page is a distant memory. Instead of creating from a empty slate, you’re already working from a susbtantial document. In fact, you don’t even have to describe the process as writing. Instead, you’re simply revising or transforming your notes:

  • Extracting the core ideas from the quotes you’ve gathered.
  • Expressing those ideas in your own words, and in your own sequence.
  • Adding your own ideas.
  • Occasionally quoting one of your sources.

These benefits of the TPQ method can help you dive into your book project and produce meaningful results right away. Please try it and give me your feedback. I’d love to know if it works for you.

P.S. Recently I stumbled on a post by Cal Newport on his Study Hacks blog. He suggests a process that’s a lot like the one I’ve explained. Check it out.

P.P.S. In addition, the TPQ method is grounded in the rules for reading presented by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren in How to Read a Book — an inspiring classic.

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