Creating An Outline

The most helpful thing a client can do for a ghostwriter is to supply him or her with a detailed outline of the book to be written. Working from an outline makes the job of ghostwriting ten times easier than starting with a blank slate. From the client’s point of view, an outline gives your book a much better chance of containing exactly what you want in it.

An outline puts the client and writer onto the same page from the get-go. If the writer fails to include something, and the client doesn’t like how it’s going, an outline is concrete proof of your original vision, and a tool for getting back on track. Without an outline, a writer is working blind – unless, of course, the client can verbalize just as thoroughly as write an outline  — but most people aren’t able to speak in such an organized way.  It’s much more efficient to write the outline.

An outline isn’t only meant for ghostwriters; it’s also extremely useful when writing one’s own book. The more detailed the outline, the more helpful it’s likely to be once the writing begins. But don’t just take my word for it—try it! I promise, you’ll like it.

What To Include

Remember, first of all, that this is not the kind of outline used for submitting a book proposal to an agent or publisher. We’re speaking about a working outline, a tool to be used primarily by the (ghost)writer. It need not, therefore, follow a precise formula. Nobody but you and the writer ever has to see it.  Proposal outlines have different requirements.

A good working outline should first of all include the subject(s) to be addressed in each chapter. If you already know some or all of the chapter titles, include them; if not, use descriptive phrases as working headers. Underneath each chapter head enter sub-topics and, if you have any, notes. If you’ve done any writing, include it under the notes only if very short (no more than a paragraph); if you’ve written longer passages, clearly mark where they belong in the outline, and attach separately.


Maybe you’ve developed all your ideas of what’ll be in the book, but you’re not sure in what order to put them. In that case, you can either list the topics without denoting chapters, or just let the (ghost)writer know that s/he can play around with the order. Most writers know how to segue from one topic to another, and how to write openings and closings of chapters in such a way that they smoothly connect, each one to the next. The same goes for sub-topics.

If you do have a specific order in mind, indicate it, but be aware that the writer might suggest changes. When it comes to this and other suggestions from the writer, don’t feel like you absolutely must follow everything he or she comes up with. You should, however, be open-minded, since your ghostwriter not only has more experience than you, but probably also has a more developed sense of what works.

Even if you don’t use chapter names and numbers, the outline itself should be logically organized (see sample below). And if the book itself ends up looking very different from the outline, as long as you like the end product, don’t worry about it. This isn’t school: you won’t be graded on how well you stuck to your outline.

Outlining is a Skill

Like editing, proofreading, indexing, and other skills used in creating a book, outlining is a skill, and can be learned. Books on outlining are available in the library or in bookstores. There are different kinds of outlines, and definite rules. It’s best to keep it simple, especially if you’ve never written an outline before, like this:

Chapter Heading / Subheadings / Descriptions / Notes, if any / Short Writing, if any

I was taught how to write an outline in school – I think it was in elementary school, but it might’ve been high school. Apparently not everyone was, though, or perhaps, like so many skills, public schools no longer teach it. (I make this observation based on some of the outlines people have given me.)

The following is a simple outline of what I’ve written here so far:

How to Write an Outline

I. Introduction – Why do an outline? Benefits.

II. What to include

A. Main subject and/or title of chapter

B. Subtopics of each chapter

C. Notes

D. Writing

1.  short

2. longer

III. Organization

A. Order

1. If you know the order

2. If you’re not sure of the order

B. Role of ghostwriter in organizing, responding to ghostwriter’s suggestions

IV. Outlining Is a Skill  —  like other writing skills, can be learned

This is a basic outline, and works well as a tool.

Remember: you can’t have an “A” without a “B” or a “1” without a “2”. If you have subtopics that reach beyond the small numbers, as in II-D above, use lower case letters (a), (b), (c). It isn’t necessary to make it any more complicated than that, though.  If you feel a need for sub-categories beyond this format, you’re probably overdoing it.

Any questions? Feel free to place them in the comment box.

This entry was posted in advice, book writing, ghostwriting, how-to, tips for writers, writing and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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