Organize Your Non-Fiction Book Ideas in 3 Steps

UPDATED 06/20/2015

“Organizing ahead of time makes the work more enjoyable….When everything is organized you can clean as you go and it makes everything so much easier and fun.”
~Anne Burrell

After having the big idea for a book, many of us have an inner critic that goes to work pointing out all the reasons why we are “not qualified” to write the very message we are passionate about.

I won’t tell you that an outline will help you shut down that inner critic, but it can help you quiet that critic by focusing on getting the main parts of your story out of your head, on to paper, and organized in a way that helps you identify the areas where you need more research, less detail or even build a stronger argument.

You can get started with organizing your ideas for your non-fiction book with these three simple, but not necessarily quick, steps:

Step 1: Define your book’s message.

Every published non-fiction book should have a defined message and a specific audience that the message is addressed towards. Whether you plan to write your book from scratch or you want to transform your existing content into a book, your first step is to make sure your book will have these too.

The simplest way to define your book’s message is to imagine having a conversation with your book’s muse and tell them what one thing you want them to think, say or do after reading your book. Then, summarize your message to your muse in one sentence that will help you focus your book’s message.

Step 2: Create your table of contents (TOC) draft.

There are three parts of a book: the front matter, the text, and the back matter. Your TOC is part of the front matter and it is a prioritized list of everything that will be in the text and back matter. Sometimes the best starting point for creating your own TOC is to understand your options, so I created the “Menu of Book Elements” to introduce you to all the parts of a book you have to choose from. You can access this menu in the Resource Gallery for Milestones 1-3 in the Author Lounge. If you’ve already claimed your free Author Info Kit, you have access to your Author Lounge through the Kit. If you haven’t already claimed your free Author Info Kit, you can get it by clicking here.

Now that you understand your options, it’s time to start working on your TOC. How you complete this step depends on what kind of book you are writing:

Now that you have a defined message for your book, find 2-3 books on Amazon that are similar to what you want to write. Make sure you have access to view their table of contents through Amazon’s “Look Inside” program. If the books on your list do not participate in this program, keep looking for a competitive title that allows you to review the TOC.

Use the information on the book’s Amazon sales page and the TOC to complete a table that allows you to compare the book titles, publication details, TOC, most favorable reviews and most critical reviews side-by-side. Use all the information in the TOC and the book’s reviews to help you create a TOC that gives you an unfair advantage with readers over the published title you are reviewing because yours will be more original, comprehensive or specific, up-to-date or user friendly.

Here is an example of what your table might look like. (Please note that my example shows five competitors, but using 2-3 will be enough to help get your creative juices flowing. As you go through the activity, if you are not feeling inspired by any of the books you have chosen, simply replace the uninspiring title(s) with a more inspiring title that includes the type of information you want to share in your book.)

Here is another example of what it might look like when it is completed. 

After you have all the details of your competitors’ TOC written down,  use the information as inspiration for writing a TOC for your own book.

Use the following questions to guide you through the process of creating your TOC.

  • Is the TOC broken down into different parts that you can use to fill with your own information?
  • Is their TOC missing key information you said you wanted to have in your book when you outlined your book’s main points and features in the previous step? If so, where is the best place to insert it into your TOC?
  • Would the message make more sense to readers if the chapters are rearranged in a new way?
  • What happens when you take the best parts of each TOC and personalize it to support your unique perspective?

Keep in mind that this TOC is a draft and is likely to change and evolve as you continue working on your book. This is simply the starting point you need to begin. Use these book writing recipes for inspiration.

Step 3: Categorize your existing notes based on your book TOC. 

Now that you have an outline to start with, it’s time to organize your previously recorded notes. Most advocates, entrepreneurs and organizations have started and stopped working on a book before, so I’m sure you have something written, drawn, dictated or otherwise recorded somewhere for inclusion into your book. Your TOC chapter titles will become the category names you will use to organize your notes.

All of your physically recorded notes will be organized into different piles labeled by TOC chapter titles written on post-it notes.

  1. Write the name of each chapter title on a separate post-it note.
  2. Arrange the post-it notes so tat they are spread out across a space large enough to hold a separate pile for each note.
  3. Go through each recorded note one at a time and place it in the pile where it is the best match for the post -it’s chapter title.

All of your digitally recorded notes will be organized into new computer folders labeled by TOC chapter titles. 

  1. Create a computer file on your desktop labeled “(Your Last Name) Book” (or some other name that you will remember).
  2. Open your new book folder and create one (1) new folder for each chapter title in your TOC.
  3. Go through each recorded note one at a time and place it in the folder where it is the best match for the folder’s chapter title.

Final Thoughts

You can organize your ideas for your non-fiction book by:

  1. Defining your book’s message.
  2. Creating your own table of contents (TOC).
  3. Categorizing your existing notes based on your TOC.

These steps will allow you to structure your ideas in preparation for writing your first draft. The steps are designed to be simple, but I’ll tell you now that they are not necessarily easy. It takes time to think through what you really want to achieve.

Now that you are organized, you are ready to use your scheduled writing appointments to write your first draft.You can use your TOC as your guide by picking part of it that is not yet fully written out and using one of the 7 writing strategies to fill it in. But don’t let yourself get caught up in making the first draft perfect. You will have at least three rounds of editing to polish it.

If you run into any trouble while organizing your book or you prefer to partner with me so I can help you organize your book, then book a consultation so we can talk. 

QUESTION: When you have a big task ahead, how do you get yourself organized to tackle the challenge? 

Danielle Fetherson

Danielle helps aspiring authors become published authors. She believes that everyone has at least one book on the inside of them that can make a positive impact on someone else's life. If you have been thinking about writing a book, learn how to start your book today with the free resources at