When I was setting out to write my dissertation, someone gave me a piece of advice that has stuck with me and helped me to write many books. And that piece of advice is this: never start with an outline. Outlines have a tendency to stretch infinitely, which only makes it harder to finish. Instead, write the Table of Contents.

That’s right—skip the outline and go straight to the ToC. Begin with an Introduction, end with a Conclusion, and fill in the chapters in between.

This strategy is excellent for any self-help or business book in which you want to share your expertise on how to do something. But how do you know what those chapters will be until you’ve written them?

You begin by brainstorming and jotting down the important points that you want to get across. What is it that you want people to know? What kinds of questions are people likely to ask you to discover the information that you have to share? What do they need to know to get started?

And that’s how you get started.

Start with identifying your terms. There are always specialized terms that you use without even thinking about it, but your readers may not be familiar with those terms. Write out those terms and their definitions. This information might go into a glossary at the end of your book, and/or form the basis of some early chapters.

What is the first thing that your reader is going to need to know or do before they can go further into the meat of your book? That information might be something you put into your Introduction, but more likely it will be Chapter One. Begin with the basics.

And what about that Introduction? What does that include?
In the Introduction, you introduce yourself:

  • tell the reader who you are
  • why you are writing the book
  • why you are the best person to be writing that book
  • what they are going to learn by reading the book.

And when you get to the Conclusion, you will tell them what you just told them. You won’t add any new information in the Conclusion. Keep all the new information in the heart of the book—those chapters in between.

Organize your thoughts from simple to complex. Give them one step at a time.

Keep your chapter titles consistent. That means don’t have one title saying something like “How to tie your shoes” and the next chapter title something clever and quirky like “Nobody Likes a Goody Two-Shoes.” One is instructive, the other cutesy. If you want cute titles, make them all cute. If you want instructive titles, keep them all instructive. If they are statements, make sure they are all statements, not some questions, others statements. For example, “Do you really need shoes that tie?” is fine, but if you’re going with the question format, make the other titles questions such as “Do you have the right laces?” “Are your shoes on the right feet?” Don’t mix them up with “Buy laces that fit” and “The shoe is on the other foot.” Be consistent—find the pattern in your chapter titles and stick with it.

Don’t worry if one chapter is short and the other is long. Sometimes chapters just turn out that way. But that said, do your best to keep the chapters as much the same length as possible. And shorter chapters will keep the reader turning the pages, so if you have some really long chapters, think about breaking them up into two or more chapters.

Include stories. Readers love stories—funny or insightful anecdotes that make your point. Where do you find them? In the news, from friends or clients, from your own experience. But keep the people and details anonymous, unless it is a story that’s been in the news, in which case, be sure that you are accurate. But use these stories or anecdotes judiciously—you want them to illustrate a specific point—don’t just scatter them throughout your book because they’re funny or brilliant. Use them to best effect by having them illustrate a specific point.

Stay focused. One of the biggest mistakes early writers make is they try to cram everything they know into a single book and even a single chapter, and they go all over the place taking twists and turns and deviations that thoroughly confuse the reader. Focus on one point at a time. When you stray, cut it out and stick that stray passage into a folder marked “Scraps.” Use it elsewhere—maybe it will turn out to be a chapter all its own, or fit in perfectly in another chapter. Don’t be afraid to cut out your strays. Keep your message focused.

And keep it brief. People don’t want to read three hundred page self-help books as a rule, nor do they want to read thirty page chapters on a self-help topic. Three one-hundred page books is better than one three-hundred page book in almost all cases. Sure, there are exceptions, but usually those lengthy self-help or business books you see started out much shorter, and only gained pages with subsequent revisions. Start out keeping your message focused, clear and brief.

Cite your sources. When you discuss “research” or “studies” or “reports” cite them. Use footnotes or endnotes (endnotes are less distracting), but include the full citation so readers can look up the source on their own if they want. And by citing your sources, you are providing evidence to support your point—it makes your book more convincing. If you don’t know how to cite, get on Google and look it up.

Use quotation marks for anything someone else said, and if you are paraphrasing another person’s words or ideas, give credit where credit is due. Cite the source. Otherwise, you risk being accused—or even sued—for plagiarism.

Add a chapter after the Conclusion on Resources. Give the reader some places they can go, some websites they can look up, some numbers they can call, for more information.

Finally, be conversational in your writing. Write as if you are talking to somebody. Pretend someone has sent you an email asking how to do something, and you are replying as clearly and conversationally as you can. That is the voice that readers will pay attention to—not the voice of someone droning on and on in a dull, lecturing voice. And the good news is—that voice is the voice that will come to you most readily. It’s the voice you use to talk with friends, the voice you use to talk to your children, the voice you use to explain things to your clients. Use that voice, and your reader will listen.

Writing a nonfiction, self-help or business book is something anyone with knowledge and the desire to share that knowledge can do. The hardest part is organizing your ideas and staying focused, but if you start with a simple Table of Contents, you’re already on the road to holding your book in your hands—and passing it on to the reader who most wants and needs it.