David Colin Carr

David Colin Carr

Don’t cringe! I promise, on a 30 year career of editing and a lifetime of writing, that it’s not as complex as you fear. I am forever grateful to Miss Delia Stebbins who had the foresight to teach our eighth grade class to outline.


  • Outlining will speed the writing process and prevent blocks that aren’t psychological (dealing with your inner critic is a complexity for another blog).
  • Outlining allows you to think through everything you have to say before starting to write your manuscript. There will never be a time – if your outline is fully articulated – when you don’t know what to write next.
  • You don’t have to proceed from beginning to end. You can pick up anywhere in the trajectory, since you already know how every piece links to all others.

Easy Method of Outlining – particularly useful for non-fiction

1- Bring your overall topic into focus.

2 – Make a list of the most important subjects you want to cover.

3 to 7 words should be enough to name each topic. Stay spontaneous and brief.

Aim for 10 or 15 independent subjects.

3 – Arrange topics in logical sequence: to talk about y, I need to first introduce x.

Ideas that are a subset are listed beneath their overall topic.

4 – Next round: Focus on only one of the major topics.

Make a list of all the primary things you need to present for that topic to be understood.

Do this for each of the major topics.

Arrange in logical order.

5 & 6 – Repeat the process for each of the secondary topics, then for each of the tertiary topics.

This level of articulation might take several days of contemplation.

By the time you have refined each topic to this fourth level, you are close to having the first sentence of every paragraph of your whole book. And all you’ve done is taken quiet time to think about what you are going to write.

Now you can start thinking about what you should say in the Introduction because you have an overview of the entire content of your book in the order of presentation. You can also leave the Introduction for last, since you might have a different sense of your intention once the content is written.

Tools for Outlining

When you have ever point in its proper place, it should look kind of like:

Standard outline format:

sample outline














You can see at a glance how easy it will be to start writing from this guide.


Visual and non-linear thinkers find this easier than a standard outline.

It is a great tool for brainstorming, alone or with others.

These points will become clear when you follow the links to the recommended websites.

  1. Circle in the middle of the page names the title.
  2. Lines (links) radiate out to the primary topics.
  3. Lines from those radiate to supportive topics.
  4. Add more subjects – which may or may not link to the main topic. All links can be rearranged as you clarify the logic of what must be presented first, and what concept relates to what secondary topic.

Starting to write:

Once you have a completed outline, it is easier to write from the linear standard outline than to work your way around the circle with its subsets and sub-subsets.

Xmind and NovaMind  (out of two dozen mindmapping programs) work well for writers because they have a side bar in which every entry you have made in the visual map also appears in a window in the right margin in standard outline format (and vice versa). This makes the sequence very easy to follow when you start writing.

If you are outlining with an editor or co-writer, each of those work, though a bit clumsily since they are on a website that allows only one person to work on at a time. You can use a program like LogMeIn, which allows two people to work on one computer from remote locations. But for simplicity, I recommend Mind42, a cloud-based mindmapping tool, which allows either person to make changes in real time. Though it lacks the vertical outlining function, you can write your way around the central topic as you would the main points in an outline.

Both mindmaps and standard outlining allow you to insert files and weblinks where information you will need later can be found easily.

Both ways of outlining are completely flexible. If you are halfway through the writing and you discover some new information that is essential to address, figure out where it belongs in the flow and insert it.

When you write

Be brilliant, be wild, be imaginative and original, be without judgment on yourself.

A sensitive editor will not domesticate your brilliance, only rein in your wildness to make it coherent. Employ language and images your readers have never heard. You can always edit out what has gone too far afield.

Author Bio:

Editor David Colin Carr has been freelancing fiction and non-fiction since 1988 with writers as far flung as Beijing and Johannesburg, as well as doctoral candidates around the US. He works collaboratively with clients to bring forth their passion – with clarity and coherence, while preserving their distinctive voice. David values outlining to develop logical structure; strives for lively, efficient language; and uses humor to turn bad news into an exciting challenge. He is dedicated to projects that manifest the beauty of this planet and the mystery of our hearts – offering compassion, counseling skills, and creativity to bring forth the brilliance of both the writing and the collaborative relationship. www.DavidColinCarr.com

If you like this blog post, you’ll love our Author Toolkit with templates, worksheets and checklists for writing nonfiction. Check it out!