Frameworks for Your Ideas—Your BIG Table of Contents

Much of my work consists of helping clients create a table of contents for a book they’d like to write. This is essential work. Lately, though, I’ve concluded that our primary task is to think bigger.


Consider that people who write nonfiction books can now become idea entrepreneurs. They can connect with a critical mass of people who will embrace and embody their ideas. (This is the non-spammy meaning of having a platform.)

On a practical level, this means expressing your ideas in multiple formats. Yes, you’ll write your book. But you might also make speeches, take part in social media, do webinars, publish an email newsletter, shoot videos, and record podcasts. And, you might do another book as well.

Since your job is to continuously develop and present ideas, why not create a single framework for all your ideas in all their expressions? This is more than a table of contents for a single book. It’s a roadmap for all the books you’d like to write—and all the other content you’ll publish and present over the whole arc of your career.

Let’s call this framework your BIG table of contents.


Here’s an example.

Patrick Carnes is a psychologist, author, and speaker who developed a 30-task model of recovery from addiction. For instance, the first task is to “break through denial.” That’s followed by “understand the nature of addictive illness” and “surrender to process.”

The 30-task model is the BIG table of contents for the work that Carnes wants to put out into the world. He’s already published books that explain the first 13 tasks in detail. Future books are planned about the remaining 17 tasks.

In turn, those books will furnish content for all the publications, presentations, products, and services that Carnes creates during the rest of his career.


A BIG table of contents offers a powerful framework for your commonplace book—a personal collection of facts, anecdotes, quotations, and other information for future use.

Don’t let all that information sit in a big disorganized heap. Instead, divide your commonplace book into sections based on your BIG table of contents. Then move each piece of information into the appropriate section.

Do this over time and you’ll see articles, books, blog posts, and presentations practically start writing themselves.

Frameworks for Your Ideas—Flat Structures


What I mean by a flat structure is just two levels of content in your manuscript. For example: part headings + chapter headings. Or: chapter headings + chapter subheadings.

In either case, there are only two levels of content for you to create—and for readers to consume.


When it works, a flat structure is a thing of beauty—sparse, lean, and yet comprehensive. The benefits are:

  • Ease of reading. It’s hard for people to remember the differences between multiple levels of headings. Some readers will just skip them.
  • Ease of writing. With a flat structure, you don’t need a complex outline or table of contents. It’s easier for you to remember what level of content you’re creating at any given time. There are only two options.


To see flat structures with these virtues, consider two books by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson: Rework and Remote. (For a full table of contents, scroll down the page to “Full List of Essays Included in the Book.”)

For example, Rework includes a chapter simply titled “Takedowns.” This chapter includes the following essays:

  • Ignore the real world
  • Learning from mistakes is overrated
  • Planning is guessing
  • Why grow?
  • Workaholism
  • Enough with “entrepreneurs”

That’s just 2 levels—chapter + essays.

Contrast these books with those that use a complex structure—part headings, chapter headings, chapter subheadings, followed by sub-subheadings and sub-sub-subheadings. The full table of contents for such books would look like an outline with many levels of indentation.

Other flat structures

As books with flat structures, Rework and Remote  analogous to newspapers:

  • Like the chapters in these books, each section of a newspaper covers a single major topic—breaking news, opinion, technology, business, and so on.
  • Sections are collections of articles or essays related to separate major topics.
  • You can read the articles in any order, independently of each other.

Essays are just one type of chapter element. There are other options. For instance, you could create chapters that are collections of questions and answers. Or, you could group inspirational quotations into chapters and write a separate essay to explain the meaning of each quotation.

Three caveats

You don’t have to write every book with a flat structure. It’s just an option. You might even find that creating a simple structure for your book yields so much clarity on your topic that you can naturally transition to a more complex structure. If it feels good, do it. Then get a few people to read your manuscript and ask them if it flows logically.

Tell readers whether chapter elements are ordered. This is where your book might differ from a newspaper. Does your chapter present a list of steps that need to be done in a certain sequence? Does it make an argument that flows from premises to conclusion in a logical order? In either case, place your chapter elements accordingly. Consider numbering the elements, just to be clear.

Remember that a flat structure can make the task of writing simpler—but not easy. I doubt that finishing a book manuscript will ever become effortless. Annie Dillard observed that “Every book has an intrinsic impossibility, which its writer discovers as soon as his first excitement dwindles.” A simple structure can decrease that challenge but not eliminate it.

The goal in any case is to discover the simplest possible framework that serves you and your readers. Look for structures that create momentum for readers and draw forth the notes from your commonplace book like a magnet attracts metal.

Frameworks for Your Ideas—Lists

I’ve posted about the power of frameworks (ways of organizing your ideas) in creating content that people can remember and use. Many idea entrepreneurs rely on a particular framework—problem-solution-process—for this purpose.


However, you do have other options. One is the almighty list.

Including lists in your commonplace book can help you manage projects and extend your memory. Lists are also useful for writing articles and creating tables of contents for books that you want to publish.


Tons of books are based on lists. For example:

  • The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People by Stephen R. Covey
  • 42 Rules of Marketing by Laura Lowell
  • Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School by John Medina
  • 101 Ways to Love Your Job by Stephanie Davidson
  • The 48 Laws of Power and The 33 Strategies of War by Robert Greene.

Also consider the many books based on the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. The table of contents for Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, for instance, is simply a list of the Steps and Traditions, with a chapter devoted to each one.

How to create effective lists

Test your list. When you organize your content as a list, is some essential material excluded? Do you find yourself trying to force a fit to the list? If so, then use another framework.

If you can structure your material as a list without compromising your content, however, then go for it. The numbered list is sometimes maligned as simplistic. Yet when done well, this framework is intuitive for both readers and writers.

Remember that certain numbers appear to be favored in book titles (don’t ask me why): 5, 7, 10, 12, 99, 100, 101. Again, don’t force it. If a different number suits your content, then use it.

Tell people whether your big list of ideas or strategies is unordered or ordered. If it’s unordered, then it’s OK for people to begin with any chapter or section and choose their own path through your content. They can read or listen to any section or chapter in any order.

If your list is ordered, however, then your book is based on steps that come in a specific sequence. When this is true, let people know that you’d like them to read or listen to chapters or sections in the order that you’ve laid out. Otherwise, readers will get confused—and doubt your credibility.

Turn each list item into a headline. The purpose of a headline is to attract attention and draw people into your content. Give as much care to the wording of each list item as you do to the title of a book, article, or presentation.

Copywriters specialize in writing headlines, and their techniques are useful for any writer or speaker. Start with these suggestions from Neville Medhora, Jeff Goins, and Ray Edwards. They’ll lead you to more.

Frameworks for Your Ideas—Problem, Solution, Process

If you’re an idea entrepreneur, you’re on a mission. You want to help people solve an urgent problem by using a process—a plan of action that involves new behaviors.


This is the purpose of most business, self-help, and other “how to” books. They’re all about:

  • Diagnosing a problem
  • Offering a solution
  • Presenting a process to solve the problem

In short—problem, solution, process.

Example—Getting Things Done

In his book 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, says David. We end up trying to keep track of all our commitments in our head, constantly fearing that we’re still forgetting something important.

The result is mental clutter—a state of distraction that leads to a constant, low-level stress. That’s a problem.

The solution that David offers is “mind like water.” This is the freedom from distraction that we experience when we stop tracking commitments in our head.

We experience “mind like water” by adopting a cluster of habits:

  • Collecting emails, voice mails, paper-based mail, meeting notes, and other “information inputs”
  • Clarifying 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 set of lists
  • Reviewing those reminders in the light of your personal mission and vision
  • Engaging with the world by doing the items on noted in the calendar and lists

This reduces to:

  • Mental Clutter (Problem)
  • Mind Like Water (Solution)
  • Collect, Clarify, Organize, Review, Engage (Process)

There you have it—the essence of David’s teaching in 10 words.

Use this framework to fine tune your content

If you ever feel overwhelmed with information or confused about your fundamental message, get back to those three words—problem, solution, process. Can you map the information that you’ve captured to one of those three timeless categories? This is your path to clarity.

More specifically, ask:

Do I diagnose an urgent problem? Locate a pain point for the people in your target audience. Describe a situation that genuinely complicates their lives and keeps them awake at night.

Do I propose a clear solution? It must relate directly to the problem you diagnose and lead to the sweet pleasure of relief.

Do I explain a process that works? For Tucker Max and Zach Obront, authors of The Book In A Box Method, this is all about reassurance and guidance. It’s the part of your book where you say “here is how you are going to do this, I’m going to walk you through it, step by step by step, until you understand how to do it.”

The challenge is to propose a process that actually people can actually use. Offer genuine next actions—instructions for real behavior change. List tiny habits—small changes in behavior that require no motivation or special ability and lead to big results over time.

If you can’t answer these three questions with a clear yes, then your framework needs more work at a fundamental level. The sooner you discover this issue, the sooner you can fix it.

Structure, Structure, Structure!

The ultimate impact of your writing has a lot to do with structure—the way that your information is organized. You might have a thousand juicy facts, stories, and quotes for your book. But without a framework, they’re toast.


In his masterful book about making a living from your ideas, John Butman uses the term framework to describe how books are structured. He defines a framework as:

… a limited number of key elements that are basically descriptive in nature, such as principles, characteristics, parts, or themes. A framework may also include a number of elements that are more prescriptive, such as strategies, methods, rules, and the like.

Powerful frameworks can burn your ideas into the collective mind and boost the impact of your work. Even if your ideas are not wildly original, giving them a memorable framework can lead to a breakout book.

For examples of the power of frameworks, consider:

Frameworks are created and discovered

One reason for keeping a commonplace book is to experiment with frameworks for your ideas until you find one that fits.

The challenge is that frameworks can be hard to create. They result from a mysterious dance between discovery and intention.

Sometimes you impose a framework on information.

Sometimes you just let the framework emerge organically after months or years of immersion in a topic.

And often it’s a combination of these two methods.

Start with the “five ultimate hat racks”

Information Anxiety by Richard Saul Wurman includes a sentence that makes me cheer:

While information may be infinite, the ways of structuring it are not.

In fact, Wurman reduces the options to a handful of structures—the “five ultimate hat racks”:

  • Category
  • Time
  • Location
  • Continuum
  • Alphabet

He gives these examples:

If you were preparing a report on the automobile industry, you could organize cars by model (category), year (time), place of manufacture (location), or Consumer Reports rating (continuum). Within each, you might list them alphabetically.

In the five ultimate hat racks is a path to freedom from information overload and to structures that resonate with your audience.

One of my goals is to create a meta-framework for idea entrepreneurs—a “framework of frameworks” that you can to turn to for structuring ideas. I’ve got several up my sleeve. Look for more details in future posts.

How a Commonplace Book Differs From a Journal

A friend asked me about the difference between keeping a journal and keeping a commonplace book: “Aren’t they two words for the same thing?”


At the moment I didn’t have a good answer. Then I stumbled on to a website from the University of Chicago about the history of books. There I found a page about Commonplace Thinking with this passage:

A commonplace book is at once a book form and a method of reading. Commonplacing was a system of using books in which readers digested the books they read by extracting, ordering and recording particular phrases or passages in notebooks of their own. This process encouraged readers to atomize books by isolating units that might later be useful in one or another discursive context….

This gets to the heart of the distinction between a journal and a commonplace book. I see three activities that a commonplace book emphasizes more.

A commonplace book preserves the best of your reading

Think back to the times when books were not widely available, and when libraries were few. When people did manage to get their hands on a book, it was truly an event.

To aid their memory, people copied out—by hand—their favorite passages from an author into a blank, bound set of papers. This served as a portable mini-library to savor at any moment.

This is how commonplace books began. And it’s still a powerful application of the concept. When filled with quotations—the “greatest hits” from the your favorite authors—a commonplace book distills all your reading into a single, personally-curated collection.

A commonplace book promotes creative thinking

The beautiful thing about a collection of quotations is that you can read them in any order and move them around.

Each individual quotation is an “atom” of thought. When you collect quotations from several books by different authors on the same topic, you see these atoms in a broader context. Your individual way of combining them can lead to new insights.

In his book The Act of Creation, Arthur Koestler referred this way of thinking as bisociation. For him, it was the essence of creativity.

A commonplace book is a step toward making ideas public

Commonplace books are more output-oriented and outward-facing than journals. They’re used to create things that go out into the world, such as:

  • Articles, blog posts, books, and other publications (literally, ideas made public)
  • Services based on the exchange of information, such as training, consulting, and coaching
  • Businesses and other organizations that are closely tied to a mission

Each of these starts as an idea in someone’s head. A commonplace book is the perfect system for capturing such ideas, developing them, refining them, and making plans to implement them.

Extend Your Mind and Memory With a Commonplace Book

363017310_9d8bf3ac1f_mThere’s a cool word in German for commonplace book — zettelkasten, which means “card index” or “slip box.”

Christian Tietze wrote a book about using a zettelkasten, which he defines as “a device to extend your mind and memory so you can work with texts efficiently and never forget things again.”

Today zettelkasten refers to any system—digital or paper-based—used for this purpose. Check out the following posts from Christian for more details.

  • Create a Zettelkasten for your Notes to Improve Thinking and Writing: “Notes can and should stimulate new associations and foster your creativity just like a good talk does.”
  • Extend Your Mind and Memory With a Zettelkasten: “Both permanent storage and interconnectedness are necessary to use the full potential of an archive for your notes.”
  • Building Blocks of a Zettelkasten: “In short, you and your note archive can communicate with one another if the results your archive produces are sufficiently surprising and thought-inspiring.”
  • You Only Find What You Have Identified: “The objective of a Zettelkasten note archive is to store notes and allow connections. Both are necessary to extend our mind and memory.”
  • The Need to Craft: “Writing a single note doesn’t take a lot of time. Also, a single note is self-contained and can be re-used, so when I finish a note it almost feels like I completed a small writing project which I find deeply gratifying.”
  • Preparing Fragments Helps You to Ease Into Writing: “A Zettelkasten makes writing texts easy. It encourages you to prepare research and the most of your writing before you compile your first draft. This way you can focus on one task at a time and needn’t sweat about getting through.”

P.S. Index cards are great for capturing ideas on the run, as Hipster PDA fanatics will remind you.

Photo credit: hawkexpress via VisualHunt / CC BY-NC-ND