The Sticky Note System for Structuring a Book

sunsetColorsFor me, creating a book usually starts by crafting a table of contents with headings that draw in my ideal reader. I’m a passionate outliner and advocate for plain text files. However, I find that some clients (all women so far) are turned off by this approach. It’s too monochromatic, too minimal, too yang.

This is wonderful resistance. It forces me to expand my cognitive preferences and play with new strategies. The result is a process that’s much more colorful and visual. You might like it. I call it the sticky note system.

This system is geared to my clients, who write how-to books that would be shelved in a bookstore under spirituality, psychology, self-help, “mind-body-spirit,” or business.

Millions of words have been written in these genres. Yet they all reduce to 6 key elements:

  • Problem—a vivid and concise description of a specific pain point: an urgent problem, a persistent question, a gap between what people want and what they have in a significant area of their lives. Call this “point A.”
  • Solution—the key to relieving the pain point, solving the problem, answering the question, or closing the gap. Call this “point B.”
  • Process—a set of practices, habits, and other things that people can actually do to implement the solution in daily life—a way to move from point A to point B.
  • Studies—research and other fact-based material that provides credible evidence for the problem, solution, and process.
  • Stories—examples of people who lived with the problem and implemented the recommended solution (including the author’s personal story, which can run throughout the book).
  • Sayings—concise and memorable quotations that echo the author’s main ideas.

With these elements in mind, you can structure your own book:

  1. Buy lots of sticky notes in two dimensions—small (3 by 5 inches, index card size) and large (easel-pad size, 20 by 23 inches).
  2. At the top of one large sticky note, describe the core problem in one sentence or phrase. This will become an early chapter in your book.
  3. At the top of another large sticky note, describe your solution in one sentence or phrase. This will be another chapter.
  4. At the top of other large sticky notes, write a phrase or sentence to describe each step or major phase in your recommended process. These will become additional chapters in your book.
  5. Now fill out a bunch of smaller sticky notes. On each of these, write a sentence or phrase to capture the essence of a single study, story, or saying (or any other idea) that you want to include in your book. Whenever possible, include a source (such as the title of a book and page number) on these notes. Use a different color for each element (one for studies, another for stories, and another for sayings).
  6. Sort the smaller notes by chapter. Stick each of these on the appropriate chapter (larger) sticky note.
  7. Sort notes within chapters. Within each of the large sticky notes, arrange the smaller notes by category or sequence.


  • This system is ideal for people with visual and kinesthetic cognitive styles. You prefer to make ideas visible, vivid, and tangible. Also, you like to leave the keyboard for a while, write by hand, and get up and move things around in space.
  • Color coding notes is fun. In a single glance, it also reveals imbalance in your material—chapters that have too many (or too few) studies, stories, or sayings.
  • You have visible evidence of your effort—large notes that cover entire walls and get filled with smaller, colorful notes.
  • You get to physically immerse yourself in your ideas. Psychologists call this distributed cognition. This is the writer’s equivalent of “surround sound.”
  • Flexibility. Rearranging notes into different chapters and moving them around within chapters is a breeze.


  • Expense. Sticky notes cost money.
  • Storage. Your notes take up a lot of room and are hard to file away.
  • Mobility. Just try taking all this stuff to a coffee shop.
  • Clarity. Notes that consist of a single word or phrase can be cryptic, making collaboration with co-authors hard.

Also remember that you’ll eventually need to sit down at a computer and translate all your sticky notes into full sentences, paragraphs, and chapters.

If you can live with these caveats, however, start sticking notes today. Let me know how it works.

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