How to Start Your Nonfiction Book Easily and Effectively Every Time

How to Start Your Nonfiction Book Easily and Effectively Every TimeI work with a lot of aspiring writers who can’t quite get clarity, find a structure or flesh out on their nonfiction book ideas. The come to me for help because the overwhelming nature of getting started stops them from writing their book.

If you, too, possess an idea for a nonfiction book but can’t imagine how to get from initial idea to finished manuscript, fear no more. A simple method exists that will help you begin writing something coherent

Start with a Brain Dump

To move through the process of ideation, which fleshes out your initial idea, and to give that idea a structure that looks like a nonfiction book, use a method I call “The Brain Dump.” Others call it mind mapping. Really, it’s both. When you use the mind mapping process, you dump from your mind all the ideas and information you possess that could possibly go into your book. And you organize it from a jumble of thoughts into a coherent order. The name you call this process doesn’t really matter (although I kind of like brain dump), only the methodology. It will take you from book idea to a detailed book outline, or table of contents. This provides you with guide you can follow from start to finish, or, rather, “finished.”

Here’s why mind mapping works so well: It gets you to use both sides of your brain—left and right, analytical and creative—by asking you to go through a brainstorming process where you free-flow ideas. This allows all thoughts, ideas and information you have on the topic of your book to rise to the surface of your mind. You then “dump” them on a white board, poster board or computer screen. (More on this in a moment.)

After this first stage, which relies more on your more creative right brain, you allow your analytical left brain to organize the material into the structure of your book—a table of contents. With this outline, you know what your book will look like. If you’ve done a really good job with this exercise and produced detailed chapter outlines, you’ll even know what subjects to cover in each chapter because you’ll have a variety of subheadings prepared. (Read on for more information.)

3 Ways to Mind Map a Nonfiction Book
  1. Post-It Note Version
    How to Start Your Nonfiction Book Easily and Effectively Every Time
    The easiest way to complete a mind mapping exercise involves purchasing a large poster board and some colored sticky notes, or Post It Notes. Use the ones made of a material you can write on. Follow these steps:

    1. Put a large Post It note in the middle of the board; write your topic or tentative book title on it.
    2. Write related topics, thoughts or ideas on smaller sticky notes. Use one color for this part of the exercise. Just stick them all over the board. Don’t worry about where you place them or about organizing them unless you are certain they are related topics. If you are certain, group related ideas or thoughts together. This is the “brain dump” phase. Put everything you can possibly think of onto the board. Free associate. Fill the board to capacity. When you think you are done, think again…and again.
    3. Organize the notes. Look for related topics. Pick up the notes and move them around.
    4. Consider which groupings are well suited to become chapters. The ones with the most information will be likely chapter choices, but you may have to break some of them into more than one chapter if you have an overabundance of notes on one topic. Use different colored Post It Notes at the top of each grouping to delineate chapters; give these chapter names.


    When done, you should have 8-15 chapters—typical for a nonfiction book. To see this clearly, use a word processing program and type each chapter name or topic into an outline. Better yet, type up a table of contents. Use each of the sticky notes in the groupings below the chapter title as a sub-topic to cover in your chapter. Write subheadings for the most important sub-topics and include this in a detailed table of contents to use as a writing guide.

  2. White Board or Poster Board Version
    How to Start Your Nonfiction Book Easily and Effectively Every Time
    You also can do this exercise on a white board or with poster board using colored pens or markers. Many people enjoy this method. Here are directions:

    1. In the center of the paper or board, print your book’s topic using a colored pen.
    2. Draw a circle around that topic.
    3. Using a different colored pen, draw a line from your topic to the first word, idea, thought, or phrase that pops into your mind related to that topic. Circle it. This is a subtopic that may become a chapter in your book. It also could become a subheading depending upon its importance.
    4. Draw a line from that word and jot down the next word or phrase that comes to mind. Since this is related, use the same colored pen.
    5. Repeat until you’ve run out of word associations.
    6. Now, return to your original topic and repeat the exercise with a different colored pen for a different subtopic. Continue until you have created ten to fifteen subtopics.
    7. Take the related subtopics and sub-subtopics, and arrange them into a table of contents for your book. Again, use the sub-subtopics as possible subheadings in your chapters.
    8. Place all the various sub-subtopics (additional related words and phrases) for each subtopic) in your expanded outline or table of contents.


    You also can just free associate and put all your ideas on the board with no rhyme or reason and draw the lines and circles using different colored pens later after your “brain dump.”

  3. Computer Version
    How to Start Your Nonfiction Book Easily and Effectively Every Time
    If you are the techie type, you’ll enjoy mind mapping on your computer. You can purchase mind mapping software or download free software. Here are some choices:

    5. Scapple


    Follow the same basic steps when mind mapping electronically. You’ll have a bit of a learning curve, but most of these programs are fairly simple to use.

    I use Freemind and Scapple. In fact, I use Freemind for almost everything, but Scapple is easier to learn and to use for this type of exercise.

Begin Start Writing Your Nonfiction Book

How to Start Your Nonfiction Book Easily and Effectively Every Time

Now sit down at the computer with your detailed table of contents. You’ll find you have a map to get you from the first page to the last page of your manuscript. You can take the exercise one step farther if you like and write out chapter summaries based upon your outline. I highly recommend this step. It ensures you don’t forget your complete thoughts about each item in your detailed table of contents, and it clarifies your ideas.

Plus, you now have a great writing guide—your table of contents and your chapter-by-chapter synopsis. Each time you sit down to write, keep your “notes” handy. You’ll always know exactly what you need to write.

With this methodology, your nonfiction book gets started quickly and effectively every time. Plus, you’ll write it easily as well.

If you need help with ideation, structure or mind mapping your book, I’m always happy to help. Contact me for a consult or for coaching.

Photo courtesy of Saracin |


  1. Hi Nina,

    Thanks – this was a wonderful blog. It provides a very clear outline and an extremely helpful method to approach a big topic in a logical way. I love the brain dump “maps” – it will certainly help towards getting a smooth flow of a book. Many thanks for this great article.



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