First draft: Crafting your initial outline


Editor’s Note: First Draft is a monthly blog series that breaks down the book writing process. Written by the ASCD Book Acquisitions Editors, this series will help educators understand how to go from a book idea to a first draft in order to share their expertise and passion with the field.

By ASCD Book Acquisitions

Once you know the topic of your book is and have narrowed your book’s focus with a unique hook, how do you go about actually writing it? There are many approaches to brainstorming and outlining a book, but we’ll share a few tried-and-true strategies to get you started. In this post, we’re going to focus on figuring out all the ideas your book is going to cover (the scope), how to group those ideas into chapters, and then how to organize those chapters into a logical first draft of your outline.

  • Figure out the scope of the book. Your hook has narrowed your focus within your topic area, but what information and strategies will your book include? It’s time to get specific!
    • Get Thinking: Brainstorm all ideas, strategies, and guidance you can think of that might go in your book on separate sticky notes or notecards. You could also use a Padlet wall, if you prefer a digital option. Get it all out there. Don’t edit yourself. That comes later!
  • Figure out your book’s chapters (i.e., identifying main topics and subtopics). Once you have written out all the ideas you can think of, you’ll need to figure out how those ideas can be grouped together into chapters and subtopics within each chapter.
    • Get Thinking: Group the sticky notes (or notecards, or Padlet text boxes) by topic or theme. You will find you have many little groups. For example, for a book on trauma-informed classroom management, you may find that you have a group of strategies for getting to know your students, one of strategies for classroom routines, and one of strategies to foster student participation. These first two groups of ideas might fit under a larger concept of “Creating a Positive Environment,” which could function as a tentative title for one chapter. Student participation strategies might fall under a separate chapter on “Engaging All Students.” What other groups fit under each chapter topic? What other topics/strategies/ideas might fit in these two chapters that you forgot to write down in your initial brainstorming?

Common Question: How many chapters should I have? As you’re organizing your ideas, you may be wondering how many chapters should you have? How many “large buckets” should you organize all your ideas into? Take a look at the tables of contents of a few ASCD books. You’ll likely find books with a handful of chapters and others with more than a dozen. It really is the content of the book that determines the number of chapters. What makes the most sense to you, given the ideas you want to address? You may also find that your chapters change as you write. You may write the first outline and realize one of the chapters is going to cover too much and should really be two separate chapters. Share your initial outline with colleagues or an ASCD Acquisitions Editor to get some feedback on your chapters and subtopics to see if it makes sense and to identify anything you might be leaving out. 

  • Cut extraneous ideas. As you organize your sticky notes into chapters, you’ll notice that some ideas don’t naturally fit anywhere. Remember, you need to keep this book tightly focused on your topic and your hook. These outlying topics are still important ideas, but perhaps they don’t fit in this book. Tuck those away for your next book!
  • Organize your chapters. Once you figure out what your chapters are, you need to determine how to organize them. This organized list of your chapters will function as your initial outline. One way to figure out the best organization is to ask yourself “What does the reader need to know first? Second?” and so on. How do the ideas build on one another? Since professional development books are trying to teach the reader something, there should be a logical progression of thought from background knowledge through implementation and evaluation. For example, in the previous example of a trauma-informed classroom management book, you would likely start with proactive strategies, such as creating a positive environment and developing routines and procedures before addressing responsive strategies like resolving conflict. To resolve conflict effectively, readers need to know how to establish rules and consequences. So establishing rules, the foundational material, needs to come first.
    • Get Thinking. Imagine that you are planning to train a group of colleagues on the topic of your book. Knowing what you want to cover (the chapters) but not knowing their experience level with the topic, how would you organize the training? What is the most logical organization for this information? What would you spend the most time on? The least?

After following these steps, you’ll have a bare-bones outline of your book that lists the topics of your book (chapters) and the order they should be read in. You’ll also have groups of ideas for the subtopics of each chapter. In next month’s post, we’ll explain how to outline a successful introductory chapter, before diving into how to outline your book’s main body chapters.

As always, you can head over to our Write for ASCD page to get more writing tips and to learn more about writing an ASCD book or article.