7 Simple Steps to Building the Structure of Your Nonfiction Book

How to "Brain Dump" Your Way to an Awesome Book

Imagine driving around an unknown city for a while when suddenly your phone and all its GPS abilities goes dead. You smack it a few times. You look to the heavens. You yell “C’mon!”

Nada. It’s a goner. What would you do next?

Many writers find themselves in this situation. Here’s the kind of question I hear regularly:

How do I take my crazy mess of thoughts and turn them into a book?!

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A lot of people have some scattered ideas about what they’d like to write about, but they really don’t know how to take those jumbled thoughts and organize them into book form.

The really sad part about this is that very often these scattered thoughts are the seeds for a great book. But if the writer never figures out how to organize them, the book never gets written.

This post is going to show you a proven way to take your untidy ideas and organize them into book form.

1. Capture the Ideas You Already Have

The first step is taking stock of the thoughts you already have, however disorganized they are. I want to stress the fact that you don’t need to be terribly eloquent when you do this. You just want to get your ideas out of your head and on paper or the screen. Think of yourself as emptying a box of puzzle pieces on the table.

Your list could be as unrefined as

  • That story about Bertha
  • That movie quote from Shawshank Redemption
  • The idea that quitters are not always silly
  • The joke about turtles

You get the idea. Just get them down.

2. Notice the Categories

The next step is to notice the categories your current ideas fall into. So if we take my list above, we’d notice these categories:

  • Stories
  • Characters or people (e.g., Bertha)
  • Movie quotes
  • Ideas or principles
  • Jokes

Good. Once you have your categories in place, move on to step 3.

3. Do a “Brain Dump” for Each Category

Step 3 will take the longest and is likely the most important step. Once you have your categories, do a brain dump for each one. The first category on my list above is “Stories.” My job as writer, then, is to brainstorm all the different stories that might be useful in my book.

Then I need to do that for characters or people, movie quotes, and so on.

You’ll notice that your brain dump is bigger or smaller based on the category. You might end up with a ton of ideas/principles but not many jokes. That’s fine. Just be sure you’ve given your all for each brain dump category.

4. Do the Same for Any Missing Categories

At this point it might be clear that you need to do some brainstorming in an additional category or more. Maybe you want to brainstorm metaphors or images or sources or conversations or interviews.

Notice any obvious categories you missed and do a brain dump for these too.

At this point you should have a bunch of categories (aim for at least five) and a brain dump below each category.

Now for the fun part.

5. Massage, Organize, and Structure

Now start moving the pieces into clusters that seem to work together.  Don’t worry about making it perfect. We’re in molding mode right now, shaping mode.

As you move the different pieces into clusters, begin sequencing the clusters. Which one should come first, second, and so on?

Do you see where we’re going with this? Those clusters are going to become your chapters.

6. Develop Chapter Titles and Subtitles

Well done! You’ve come a long way to get to this point. Now begin developing titles and subtitles for your chapters. You can change these later, but it’s important to begin naming each chapter not least because this will help you see the gaps in your content.

By the end of this step you should have a sequence of chapter titles and perhaps subtitles with a series of content references below each from your brainstorming.

7. Fill in the Gaps

As you review your chapter titles, what are you missing? At this point you might be tempted to leave a piece out because you don’t already have a lot of content leads for it. Don’t worry about that right now. That’s work for another day. Just drop in a title and subtitle to fill in the gap, and make sure it all has a nice flow.

Congratulations! You just structured your book! (Now all you have to do is write it.)

Pro Tips

What you’ve started to create here is a table of contents and what’s known as a chapter-by-chapter synopsis—a key section for any nonfiction book proposal.

If you plan to submit your proposal to agents or publishers, make sure your chapter titles and subtitles serve not only a content/editorial function but also a marketing function. Your table of contents will serve both functions for the publishing board reviewing your proposal. And it will serve both functions in the marketplace.

Avoid repeating the same word or phrase over and over again within your table of contents. I see that a lot and it’s boring.

I like using the grab-and-tickle approach to titles and subtitles. Grab readers with an arresting or poignant or intriguing title. Then tickle their interest with a descriptive subtitle. Grab and tickle.

Want to know more about writing a nonfiction book proposal? Check out my book proposal guidelines. They’ve helped countless authors win book contracts. Download Proposal Guidelines.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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  • mandakini

    Hi Chad
    somehow i stumbled on your site today , looking for a coherent way to organise my e-book ideas. Till date i must have read dozen of the websites on same topic . This one is really fresh & practical.
    Thanks for the incisive insights , keep up the good work !
    Much love from across the globe, India !

  • Erica Barthalow

    I love the practicality and step-by-step guide you provided. I think step #3 is where I usually drop the ball, and now I know how to dig in and do the work to get the ideas down. Thanks for sharing your wisdom!

  • JustMe

    This was intriguing. Is there a place for this method if you’ve already done an outline?

  • Good stuff! Sometimes I encourage people to use notecards and “storyboard” the categories. It makes it easier to move things around without losing track of content. Most of the people I work with are coming to me with an established outline from a sermon or seminar, but the brain dump approach still works for them because they have to expand their points and get them on paper.

    • Chad R. Allen

      Cara, love the idea of using notecards. I remember calling author Mike Howerton one time when he said, “You ought to see my office. I have notecards all over the floor!” Those notecards became his book, Glorious Mess.

      • JustMe

        This is a relief–I was planning on researching my project with notecards. There is room for low-tech!

  • Great content. Glad to see my writer friends sharing this!

    • Chad R. Allen

      Thanks, Margot!!

  • Anita

    Grab and tickle…now I’m going to be thinking about this all day long…especially as I work with squirrley junior high students… Welcome back from your creative vacation :).

    • Chad R. Allen

      Thanks, Anita! Glad to be here.

  • Hi Chad, I was literally doing a brain dump and just paused to check my email and saw your post had arrived in my inbox minutes earlier. How perfect! I’ve read it quickly but will be going back over it in more detail. I’m excited to turn my thoughts into book form and this post will help a lot. Glad to hear things are going well.

    • Chad R. Allen

      Oh good, Rachel, glad it’s helpful to you. Let me know if you have any questions as you go.

  • Joseph Durepos

    Really helpful Chad, thanks!

    • Chad R. Allen

      Joe, you’re most welcome!