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Overboard Blog

Living the extraordinary life of faith!

How to write a book: Outline (1/3)


Seems like everybody has a bucket list these days -- you know, those things you want to accomplish before you die. I’m not really sure I have one, but not because I don’t have things I want to accomplish. Quite the contrary, I’m fairly certain that all I hope to accomplish can’t be done in just one lifetime. So I hope to leave a legacy for others to follow, so that the work God does not give me time to finish, others will be able to complete in-turn, leaving a legacy for still others to follow in living the Overboard Life! Having said that, one of the goals I did want to achieve was completing my first book. That was cool. And by the grace of God the stories and encouragement people have shared with me after reading the book have been even cooler.

Back on August 1st, I did a post about how a book gets published, and today I’d like to share with you a few details about how I wrote my book. It may or may not be that informative for you, and I’m certainly not an expert after just one volume. But if writing a book is on your bucket list, I hope this first part of a three-part series will help. Enjoy! Or don’t! It’s up to you.

Outline, outline, outline

When I wrote Project Joseph (henceforth hitherto, to be known as PJ) I made one fairly significant mistake early on -- I didn’t give myself a very solid outline to work with. I wrote up a few general ideas and principles, and I worked from a basic outline, but when I ran into some serious issues of ‘writer’s block’ -- my flimsy outline was of absolutely no use. This month I started working aggressively on writing my second book, Project Nehemiah (henceforth hitherto thither and thon to be known as PN) and my outline is already 1294.58% better.

For me, an outline doesn’t just help me organize my thoughts, it helps me remember where I’m going. In PJ my outline was a little ADD. Squirrel! When I put the computer away for a few days or a week (or for several months during one particular season of giving up), I came back and basically had to re-read my entire manuscript to figure out what I was saying and where I was going. My three-word outline for the entire seventh chapter didn’t help a whole lot when I was two pages in and re-visiting it after 127 days off! PN has learned from that mistake.


I know a lot of people who have wanted to write a book. Before PJ came out, I had taken several stabs at several other books, but they still sit dormant in the files of my computer. (As an important side-note, I hope my friend Andy and I one day finish the book we started several years ago and now remains dormant on our computers. It was about things we learned when we were in middle school. He told a particularly funny story about pretending to know Karate on a day when he was about to get beat up in the boy’s room. That story needs to be told to the masses!) When I started writing PJ, I took the same approach I had taken in the other books which means I jotted down a quick-and-dirty outline and then started writing. I believed if I could just get my thoughts out, the document would magically organize itself.


For a few days that style of book-writing worked well. But then a beautiful spring day took me away from my writing project and before I knew it, summer had arrived and we had the joy of speaking at 5 weeks of summer camp that year. Suddenly, 127 days had passed between writing sessions. That’s when my friend Danny Ray informed me that our friendship hinged on whether or not I actually completed the book that he believed God had given me to write. I decided it was time to heed good advice and beef up my outline. So I did. Last year, in the month of October I focused on carefully outlining the entire PJ book, including the chapters I had already written, partially or otherwise. When October was over, I made it my goal to complete the book in November by choosing to write at least 1,500 words each day of the month. On November 30th, my book was finished and on December 2nd I e-mailed a copy to my editor, as my family and I boarded a plane for South Africa.

If you are thinking of writing a book, I would humbly encourage you to start with your outline. Beef that baby up! Give yourself a good outline of the whole book, and break down each chapter by key sections. Below is a screen shot of how PJ was organized on my computer. On the left-hand side you can see the chapter headings. I’ve opened up two of the chapter folders and you can see the key headings of those chapters. Each of those headings was a key point in my outline. In many cases, I had written several sentences under those headings, even a few paragraphs that explained what I meant and where I wanted to go with those thoughts. In some cases, those sentences and paragraphs just became part of the text. In other cases, they just guided the writing of that section/chapter. In both cases, I was able to use my outline and the accompanying notes to keep track of what I had said and where I wanted to go. At the bottom of the picture you’ll see my research folder that includes an article that never made it into the book. It was a good article and I’m still a little bummed I couldn’t work it into PJ.

The more time you spend prepping the details of the outline, the faster your book will be written and the more likely you are to stay on track when you choose to take a break or when life forces you out of the writing routine for a while. Good outlines can be a book-saver. Even though I started PJ in January of 2010, I really believe it was October of 2010, when I wrote my outline, that the book was given life. Then, when I sat down in November, the writing was relatively easy, because my outline was so strong. Truly, the book was written in those two months, the previous nine were wasted on inexperience.

Writing a book for me was a big step in my walk with God. I had to get out of the comfort of the boat I was in, and get out on the water where Jesus was building His Kingdom. Learning to outline was a very significant part of that growth for me; but I’m glad I learned because life is better outside the boat.

Go ahead and take the plunge -- life is better on the water!

Coming next week: Part 2 of the 3-part series on how to write a book.