Outlining a How-To Book as a Ghostwriter

Outlining a How To Book as a Ghostwriter


Composing an outline, whether general (to be filled in later by client interviews) or bulleted down to the last detail, is the first step of a how-to book ghostwriting project. This week, I want to talk about how to get started with your outline. There are no hard and fast rules on how you should compose an outline, what it should include, etc., so that’s not what I’m going to talk about today. You should outline based on what makes the most sense to you and the client. However, there are some questions you need to answer in order to construct an outline that will properly guide you through the book writing process and make sure you start typing out that manuscript with a clear vision in mind.

As a practical example for all the questions to come, I’m going to talk a bit about my largest how-to book ghostwriting project to date: a book on addiction recovery that I wrote for an intervention specialist and addiction consultant. For the client’s privacy, I’m not going to name him or the book (though he is one of the very kind clients who allows me to use samples from his book in a portfolio capacity), but I’m going to use the outlining process for that book to give you concrete examples.

Who’s the Audience?

You should have a basic understanding of this before you give you even land the gig, thanks to the preliminary interview process. However, once you’ve been hired, you really need to narrow this down.

For my intervention specialist’s audience, he wanted to focus on families dealing with addiction. Once we really got to work, though, we quickly established that he wanted this book aimed at the parents of the family, and then we narrowed it further to parents of children who became addicted to drugs in their teens.

Why is that so important? Well, it gives him a specific audience to market to once the book in complete, for one thing. For another, it guides the tone and direction of the whole book. While sharing this client’s expertise, I kept in mind that I was talking to parents concerned for their child’s well-being. I used a larger vocabulary and spoke sympathetically. Knowing the audience also determined what questions those readers might have, which brings me to my next question.

What is the Audience’s Main Conflict and How Will You Solve It?

A how-to book is all about providing a solution to the audience. You want the readers to close the book feeling educated about the subject matter, prepared to face their own problems, and armed with practical steps to make the solutions in the book work for them. To do that, you need to understand the audience’s main pain point(s). Why did they pick up this book and what are they hoping to gain from it?

For my client, the main conflict of the target audience (parents of addicted teens) was getting their child proper treatment in the hopes of their child achieving long-term sobriety. As a result, my client wanted to take his audience from step one: admitting there was a problem, through selecting a rehab center, and all the way through aftercare and coming home.

Of course, there are many smaller conflicts or problems embedded in there. Such as, “How do I know for sure if my child is using?” “How do I stage an intervention?” “How do I find the right rehab facility?” “What happens after rehab is over?” etc. Once you have the main conflict, you can break down the smaller, more specific conflicts using the next question.

What Questions will the Audience Have?

Your job when interviewing your client is to act like the audience. You have to ask the questions for them. Now, your client may have some ideas of what readers want to know, since he or she is most likely an expert who interacts with people asking those same questions, but you need the client to tell you¬†those questions if you’re to craft a good outline. Also, there are some questions you might ask that your client didn’t think of because he or she is so familiar with the subject already. Something he or she thinks is self-evident might not be to the audience, and it’s your responsibility to make sure those questions are asked so they can be answered in the book.

If you’re doing research for the book on your own, you need to both ask those questions and answer them. For instance, my client sometimes asked me to look up fine details on things he knew about in general, but did not specialize in himself. So, I would look up the correct terms and methods for different types of treatments that my client didn’t have as much personal experience with, make sure insurance terms were accurate and explained in layman’s terms, etc. While doing that sort of research, always ask yourself what the audience might want to know about the subjects you’re looking up. Put yourself in their shoes.

How will This Book Differ from Similar Titles on the Market?

This is vital both for marketing later (not your responsibility, but something that’s still very important to keep in mind, since what you do now can make the client very happy later) and for establishing the book’s angle during outlining. Every book needs an angle. The old saying, “There is nothing new under the sun,” certainly applies to books. I guarantee there’s a least a few books in the same vein as your client’s idea, and that’s a-okay. That means plenty of research material. However, your client’s book needs to be distinguishable from those other books if it’s going to sell.

So, you need to pose this question to your client very early on, during the outlining process. If you want to impress, make sure you have an idea or two of your own under your sleeve before you make that call. That way, if the client doesn’t immediately have ideas, you can supply some that might get the client’s wheels turning.

However, I have found that when working with experts, they usually have some sense of this already. The first three how-to books I worked on were given to me through an agency, and they were not commissioned by experts, so this was up to me entirely, really. However, in every project I’ve landed or sent a quote for since then (including one that I’m negotiating with today, actually), the client has ideas about this already, which is super nice.

My intervention specialist client was already very familiar with similar books, and he had an opinion on what their shortcomings were. He didn’t like that most of them just focused on intervention and rehab. He thought there was far more to the issue than that. Rehab doesn’t have the highest success rates, and one of the reasons, in my client’s opinion, was that treatment could not stop there. He wanted to provide solutions beyond the 90 days of in-facility treatment. During interviews, he also lamented that most similar books did not focus at all on mental health issues, which are a root cause of many people’s addictions. So, to set his book apart, he wanted to cover steps before and after rehab, and incorporate mental health treatment options. So, we had our angle.

Some clients may need more prompting in this area than others, but always make sure your angle is fleshed out before you start writing. It will save you a whole lot of rewriting time.


Where Will You Get Your Anecdotes?

Any how-to book needs practical examples, and the best way to lay those out is with related anecdotes. However, not all subject matters lend themselves to personal anecdotes from the client. That’s fine, but you probably want some general ideas for anecdotes in your outline, as it’s a common strategy to center a chapter around an anecdote or two.

For that addiction recovery book, my client had tons of anecdotes. He himself fought addiction in his teens and early twenties, so he had personal examples from the child’s side that could help parents understand what their child was feeling and how their mind was working under the influence. He also had professional examples of clients he’d worked with as an intervention specialist and a consultant at a halfway house.

Maybe your expert is not as fully ingrained in the subject matter as my client, though. If my client hadn’t been addicted himself, I wouldn’t have had those anecdotes from the addict’s perspective. To get those, I might have worked up some hypotheticals based on research and the client’s interactions with addicts. Or, the client or I could have conducted interviews with addicted or formerly addicted youth. You have options, no matter whether your client is a fountain of anecdotes or not.

Is the Book Selling Anything Other than the Client?

Many times, your client is commissioning this book in order to establish him or herself as an expert in the field. However, depending on the subject matter and how long your client has been in the field, your client may have a program he wants you to plug or a product he wants to sell through the book. In order to seamlessly insert those promotions in a way that is going to entice readers to buy rather than turn them off, you need to understand the program or product before you start writing. You need to be able to see where in the book you can relate the subject back to that other thing the client is selling.

My client did have something he wanted to promote in his book, but it definitely wasn’t the main focus of why he was writing the book. So, I didn’t have to labor over where and how to insert it in the outline. However, it did crop up. You see, thanks to her struggle of trying to get my client sober, the client’s mother was inspired to start up a rehab center that could also admit patients for mental health reasons and treat them from that angle. This directly related to my client’s emphasis on the importance of combining drug rehab with mental health treatment, so the mention of his mother’s facility fit in naturally in certain chapters.

Know where your client’s program or product fits in best so you can first show readers how it can benefit them before you actually plug it. If your client’s main goal for the book is to sell a program or product, you’re going to have to adjust your angle accordingly and make sure every chapter in the outline leads back to it.

Would Readers Benefit from Exercise Sections?

This is mostly a matter of preference, but understanding the audience can also determine whether end-of-chapter exercises might make this book even more helpful to readers. For instance, if the target audience is children or young adults, exercises are more common. The younger the audience, the more likely short exercises at the end of chapters will help them retain the information they learned.

My client didn’t want exercises in the book for parents, but when he hired me to do an accompanying workbook aimed at the teens themselves, worksheets and exercises were high on the agenda.

But you’ll also find exercises in books meant for adults, especially when your how-to subject leans heavily into self-help territory. There, though, it is really just a matter of preference, so make sure you talk it over with your client.

Final Thoughts

Again, your actual method of outlining is entirely up to you. You can hash out a chapter-by-chapter outline with bullets on every question and anecdote that each chapter will cover right from the get-go. Or, you can work up a general outline of basic chapter subjects, using your target audience and book angle as your guide. Then you would hash out the finer details of chapters as you go by interviewing the client before sitting down to write each chapter. Just make sure you know the answers to these big picture questions early on so that you can have a solid idea of structure and tone before you write that first chapter.

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