Once you’ve decided to write a book, you might wonder, “How am I going to get all my ideas onto paper and structure my content in a way that makes sense?”
The good news is that organizing your ideas and content doesn’t have to be as difficult as we imagine…or actually make it. Too often we overanalyze, overthink and over worry. So instead of becoming overwhelmed and frustrated, follow these three steps to write a book with clarity and structure.
1. Organize Your IDEAS
First and foremost, get all of your ideas out of your head! Do what Deana Farrell, creator of Prioritized Focus, calls a “brain dump” and write all of your ideas down. This frees your mind and allows you to visually see everything that you’d like to address in your book, which then enables you to begin to sort them into categories.
Most authors use one (or a combination of all three) of the following brain-dumping methods when they write a book:
- Mind map or Bubble method
- Post-It Notes/Index cards
- Traditional outline
Mind Map & Bubble Method
There are many mind-mapping apps and software available, including SimpleMind, Coggle, and Ayoa. I’ve never used them and therefore can’t vouch for their ease of use, but I do know they are popular. For a more in-depth discussion of mind maps and the different types available, check out The Digital Project Manager.
Personally, I’m a pen-and-paper brain dumper. This means that to create a mind map or bubble diagram, I need really large pieces of paper! The solution for me is to go to my local dollar discount store and purchase an oversized pad of drawing paper.
Post-It Notes/Index Cards
Alternatively, Post-it Notes are a great way to organize your ideas for those of you who have large walls devoid of family photos or artwork. Similarly, index cards can be placed on large tables or even on low-traffic floor areas. Once you have them laid out, you can then rearrange them until all the topics of your book flow smoothly and make sense to the reader. These methods serve the dual purpose of keeping your writing project visible so that you stay on track with your deadline.
Finally, there’s the traditional outline style that we all learned as teenagers. Although a bit more rigid in its structure, it’s nevertheless a solid and simple method to organize your ideas as you prepare to write a book.
Not sure which type will work best for you? Give a few of them a try and see which is more intuitive for you.
2. Organize Your FILES at the Outset
Many people bypass this important organizational concept. After structuring their ideas, they’re eager to write a book and dive directly into content creation, thereby neglecting to set up filing systems at the outset that will save them extensive time and frustration later.
The first thing I recommend that you do is collect all of your material into one location. This location will be a project folder on your computer or a 3-ring binder.
Within the project folder, create the following subfolders (at a minimum):
- Photos/Supplementary Info
You can have as many subfolders as you want and you can group them in a manner that makes sense to you.
Each of your subfolders will house multiple files. This is important!!!
When working on your computer, don’t just create one master Word file for your entire book and work solely from it. Instead, break each topic/theme/chapter into separate files that correspond to your mind map or outline and work on them inividually until you have enough content to compile into a rough draft.
Note that you should retain the separate files; simply copy and paste the full text from each file into the new compiled rough draft file.
Naming Your Files
Now, establishing a filing system to organize your content is one important step, but you also need to name your files so that you can remember them and find them easily.
The key, as Stanford University Library says, is to “be consistent and descriptive in naming and organizing files so that it is obvious where to find specific data and what the files contain.”
Be sure to read my post How to Name Your Book’s Project Files So You Can Write and Revise with Ease.
3. Organize Your Content into a Streamlined and Purpose-driven Manuscript
By now, all of your various pieces of content should already be in one place – your project folder, loosely sorted by approximate topic and chapter. Now it’s time to dig deeper into the organizational framework. The questions now are:
- Should you use all of that content?
- What’s the best way to arrange it?
In answer to the first question, no – you should not use every single piece of research and text that you have written. Select only those pieces that are most relevant to your thesis, argument, main points, etc. Limit your text to what carries the story forward, benefits the reader, and is your best work. Leftover material can always be turned into bonuses or value-added offers when people purchase your book.
Regarding the second question, it’s honestly a matter of trial and error. Arrange the information as it initially makes sense to you, such as according to your outline or mind map. As you read over your draft, you will undoubtedly discover sections that could use more information or that should be moved to different chapters/areas of the manuscript.
Don’t be afraid to play with it! As long as you have a saved copy of the original version on your computer, in the cloud, or on an external thumb drive, you have nothing to lose by copying and pasting sentences, paragraphs, even pages of information until it flows the way you need it to. Just be sure to select “Save As” and rename each version! Below are some screenshots that demonstrate how to utilize “Save As.”
As you can see, writing a book is a fluid, evolving process that involves multiple actions. The key is to break it all down into easy-to-follow steps.
Remember that content organization isn’t intended to be done in a day or even one week. It takes time to analyze, percolate, and revise.
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