How to organise your ideas for a non-fiction book

So many people I speak with about writing a non-fiction (business, self-help, professional development) book feel overwhelmed by simply starting it.  They can visualise the end product but they freak out about where to begin.  The hurdle seems to be in the organisation of their ideas.

Anyone who seriously considers writing a book to help leverage their expertise and grow their business knows that they know enough valuable stuff for it to work. However, they often don’t know how to distil that ‘stuff’ into digestible chunks of interesting information for a reader. And they often want to include EVERYTHING that they know….which is a big No-No. Organisation of your ideas before you start writing is crucial to completing a non-fiction book as efficiently as possible.

Writing a book without a content plan is like running a marathon without knowing where the finish line is. It’s as crazy as trying to drive from Melbourne to Kalgoorlie without referring to a map. I’m sorry, but this is one project where relying solely on your intuition isn’t going to cut it. You may eventually end up in Kalgoorlie, or at the finish line, but you will have wasted a lot of time, fuel and sneaker tread getting there.

And nobody has time for that!

Let me be clear here – when I say you need to organise your ideas, you don’t need to know exactly what is going to be in every paragraph of every chapter, but if you want to be productive you do need to know:

  • The overall flow of the book (beginning, middle, end)
  • The titles of each chapter (even if they change somewhat at the end)
  • The who, what, why, how and what it of each chapter
  • The supporting facts/research you intend to write about in each chapter
  • The stories you intend to include to illustrate the ‘how’ in each chapter
  • The next steps, or CTA, for your reader (how one chapter leads to the next and what happens after the last chapter)

Why you need a plan to organise your ideas for a non-fiction book

If you start to write without a content plan, you’re likely to waste a lot of valuable time staring at a blank screen. This will be happen because you’ll be simultaneously figuring out what you want to write while trying to write. The result? More worry and less writing.

A plan – however loose – will help direct you so that you can jump right on in to the writing of each chapter. You’ll know what to say first, next and then next.  The bonus to planning, is that the simple act of planning engages your brain, so that when you’re not writing you’ll be making connections, seeking ideas and thinking about what comes next in each chapter.  It will be inordinately helpful when you next sit down to write.

Planning tools to help you organise your ideas for a non-fiction book

As with writing habits and schedules, the organisation of ideas happens differently for everyone. Some people are visual, others more auditory, and still others like lists. What might be an efficient process for one person could be a frustrating, nonproductive one for another.  There is no right or wrong way to do it.  In fact recently, a new book coaching client of mine struggled to use my usual 4-square method of unpacking his chapters and organising his ideas, so we’ve switched to a different more linear method which seems to suit his way of thinking much better.

I’d like to discuss a few different planning tools here. They can be categorised into two types – high tech and low tech.  You’ll find what’s most comfortable for you after a bit of trial and error, and you may end up creating your own approach using a combination of elements from those listed.


Let’s get back to basics!

  1. Sticky notes. Who doesn’t love a sticky note?  Empty your head of everything you want to say and write one idea per sticky note. Attach the sticky notes to your wall, or on a big sheet of paper that has your ‘big picture’ vision on it (see Sketches, below), in groups of ideas – things that logically go together.  You’ll begin to see how it all hangs together.
  2. Sketches.We’ve all heard how the best ideas began as a scribble on the back of a napkin, right?  For the more visual amongst you, hand-drawing the ‘big picture’ idea and then the sequence of the topics you want to include in your book is a great place to start.  Let your creativity flow.
  3. Lists. If you are more of a logical, ordered thinker, you may like to write a list to expand on your ‘big picture’ idea. Each idea can also spawn supporting points.  Sue numbers or letters to order your list. There’s something very satisfying about writing lists and then ticking them off as you go!
  4. Index cards. Good old index cards are making a comeback for authors. As with sticky notes you can plaster them all over your walls to arrange and rearrange your thoughts.  Each card contains a single idea which is then inserted into the right order; they are big enough however, to also include supporting ideas. Once you have the index cards in the logical  order you’ll be ready to start writing.
  5. Scrap books. I loved keeping scrap books for all sorts of things when I was little.  They’re a great place to stick magazine cuttings, pictures, headlines, scribbles and notes.  It’s a high touch but low-tech way of storing and organising all your ideas and you can use tabes and flags to arrange the scrap book into chapters.


There are so many cool technologies and apps to help you organise your book ideas, but finding one that actually helps you, rather than hinders you with distraction or extra work, is the key.

The primary advantage of high-tech idea organising tools is that, after organising your ideas, your can export your work to your Word (or other word processing software). This saves you enormous amounts of time and effort – there is no re-entering of info required, as with low-tech solutions.

  1. Mind maps.  Mind mapping shows the relationships between ideas or information by using visual diagrams – kind of like sketching on steroids!  It’s great for any kind of project planning, brainstorming and organisation of thoughts. In seeing relationships between things you’ll more easily uncover new ideas and generate new concepts.  Mind mapping is also a great way to continue to manage your writing projects once you’ve moved past the planning stage, as you can enter start dates and deadlines for each of your chapters, helping you keep your writing on schedule. Some examples are MindMeister and XMind.
  2. Spreadsheets. Using a spreadsheet like Microsoft Excel to plan your book can be very neat and tidy and easy to do if you’re familiar with Excel. Simply put the suggested title of each chapter in the first column. Then in the second column, summarise the main idea associated with the title. In the third column, enter the ideas and examples you want to include, etc. You can then sort your spreadsheet and copy and paste each topic’s ideas into your word processing software.
  3. Lists and outlining tools. A detailed action plan can be created in Word using the list and outline feature.  As with the spreadsheet tool, you create columns of information in tables that can then be sorted using  Word’s Table>Sort feature. You can sort by titles as well as the topics intended for each chapter. You can then just copy and paste these ideas into your manuscript to help guide you as you write.
  4. Drawing programs. There are many low-cost drawing programs available that allow you to sketch out the contents of your book. This is particularly great if you are an avid tablet or mobile user and want to be able to capture info on the fly.  The best part is you can then export the images and diagrams as infographics once the book is written! Examples are Sketchbook and Krita.
  5. Storyboards.  Presentation software such as Keynote or Powerpoint are great for storyboarding your chapters. Create a separate slide for each chapter and include the main ideas for each in a bulleted list or table. You can then use the SlideSorter feature to rearrange the order of the chapters, before exporting the info to Word.
  6. Transcription. If you’re too busy to write or draw, or just simply prefer to talk out your ideas, the great news is that your smartphone has everything necessary to capture the information effortlessly. A lot of writers come up with ideas when they’re our gardening or at the gym or playing in the park with their kids, so ebing able to capture those ideas in a quick recording is great. This can later be transcribed and form part of a document full of your ideas.   Some great speech-to-text apps are Just Press Record and Speechnotes.
  7. Cloud computing. Other options for organising your book ideas include using remote file hosting services like Dropbox or Evernote. The advantage of these solutions is that you can immediately access your work from anywhere. Evernote is really popular because you can tag and search items by keywords or attributes.

Getting ready to write your book

It’s imperative that before you start to write that you take the time to organise your ideas. Explore some of the options I’ve listed here and see what works best for you. The sooner you come up with your own efficient way of organising ideas the better your book writing journey will be. 

Leave me a comment about what you’ve tried and what has worked best for you.

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