Step 5 Right Organization

You’ve probably seen plenty of parts diagrams in your life. They are the black-and-white schematics that come with everything from Radio Shack gadgets to playground sets. They show how everything goes together. And if they’re wrong, they cause endless headaches.

Well, my view is that you need the same kind of thing for a book. If the argument (table of contents) shows the major pieces of my proposed manuscript, I need something akin to a parts diagram to show the exploded version of what goes where. In other words, I need an outline.

As in most of life, the devil in an argument is almost always in the details. Hidden one or two tiers below the top-level message you will find devilish flaws, and if you don’t spot them in an outline, well, they will cause endless headaches.

So I flesh out the subordinate tiers in my book’s message – three to five messages per chapter. I go at least two tiers below the chapter level, straightening out the knots and bridging the gaps. I don’t want to be forced into restructuring later.

I’m always careful of a common outlining pitfall: listing topics instead of messages. A topic is like the name of a department in a college – biology, English, religion, engineering. It tells visitors what’s studied there; it does not say what people there have to say. Messages show what you have to say, using strong nouns and verbs.

Step 5: The paper trail continues
In this fifth step in the Stairway to Earth, I create one or two more documents:

  1. Book outline: With an electronic tool (e.g., MS Word outline format), I enter multiple tiers of messages. I can easily expand and collapse them – zoom in for detail, out for perspective – to find and fix kinks. Pesky flaws left in the flow will metastasize later.
  2. Timeline: In books with a chronology, timelines reveal connections you can’t otherwise see. They are especially good at revealing cause and effect. I have used TimeMap by CaseSoft. It is especially helpful for sequencing narratives.

With the right organization worked out, I have a full-fledged book structure. And with my growing content inventory, I have a lot of great things to say. Each document I’ve created is driving me toward a milestone achievement in the book-writing process: the proposal.

Now what about you? How do you complete the task of organization? What software and hardcopy methods do you use? Join the conversation on my blog..

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