I am fascinated by the challenge of reducing a book to its core messages in a bare-bones outline. This is a powerful way to x-ray your manuscript—and discover any hidden structural flaws.
But what if you’re writing a business, self-help, or “how to” book? In this case your purpose is not primarily to tell a compelling story. Instead, it’s to help your readers solve an urgent problem by taking action.
This calls for a different kind of outline. Following is a useful format:
- Plan of action
Consider an Example
In Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, David Allen targets a problem experienced by millions of us—feeling overwhelmed by the sheer number of things we want to remember and do. Traditional to-do lists and time management strategies don’t relieve this feeling.
So, we end up trying to keep track of all our commitments in our head—and constantly fearing that we’re forgetting something important. The result is mental clutter, distraction, and a constant, low-level stress.
The relief that David offers is “mind like water.” This is a “mental and emotional state in which your head is clear, able to create and respond freely, unencumbered with distractions and split focus.” We can attain this state of relaxed focus by adopting a cluster of new habits:
- Collecting emails, voice mails, paper-based mail, meeting notes, and other “information inputs”
- Processing those inputs to determine what requires follow-up action, what can be filed for future reference, and what can be tossed or ignored
- Organizing reminders to take that follow-up action by using a calendar and specific series of lists that David recommends
- Reviewing those reminders in the light of your mission, vision, and long-term goals.
- Doing—taking action to complete the items on your calendar and lists
Here’s how we can outline David’s system:
- Recognize clutter (Problem)
- Reduce clutter (with “mind like water,” the Solution)
- Plan of Action:
There you have it—the essence of David’s book in 12 words.
Four Things to Remember
Getting to such a bare-bones outline is a major intellectual feat. This is one aspect of writing where a high word count is not the point. In fact, the goal is to cut words until you’ve reached the minimum number needed for clarity.
Keep revising your outline until:
- The problem is clear and urgent for your target audience.
- The solution is clear and directly related to the problem.
- The plan of action is clear and directly related to the solution.
- Each line begins with an active verb.
If your outline doesn’t meet all four criteria, then your project needs more work at a fundamental level. You’re at risk for creating a book that is unclear, irrelevant, ineffective, and impossible to implement.
Discovering such problems up front—before writing thousands of words—can save your sanity. In this process, you’ll find the bare-bones outline to be your best friend.