How To Outline Chapters: 7 Helpful Steps

Are you curious about how to outline chapters? Then, take a look at some helpful information below!

You might be asked to summarize the main points of a book with a few chapter outlines. Whether you need to outline a fiction book or a non-fiction textbook chapter, you must ensure that you capture the main plot points and catch the basic idea. Learning how to complete a straightforward book outline is a key part of the writing process, and by outlining the chapters of a bestselling author, you can also improve your writing.

If you want to improve your book writing, constructing a good outline is critical before you write the entire chapter for the first time. Below, we will explain how to construct a novel outline and cover essential points from a book you might have read. Take a closer look at a few important points below.

Materials Needed

Before beginning your outlining process, you must have a few materials. They include:

  • Writing materials, such as pencils and pens
  • A few highlighters to call out essential parts of your outline
  • Either piece of paper or a computer you can use to build your outline
  • An outlining program, such as Scrivener, can help you keep track of your subplots and subheadings and fill in a template you might have.
  • An internet connection if you need to look something up

Once you have these materials, you can work on building your roadmap for your chapter.

Step 1: Read the First Paragraph

How To Outline Chapters: Read the first paragraph

The first part of constructing an outline is to read the first paragraph. The first paragraph should contain a brief overview of the information the chapter will cover. For example, you might get a feel for the topics that will be covered, the main character of the chapter, and the point of view the author is coming from.

As you read the first paragraph, it is critical to read slowly. You want to get the big picture as quickly as possible, but if you read the first paragraph too quickly, you might gloss over some key points in the book chapter. This will make it hard for you to link the first paragraph to the rest of the chapter. Read slowly to save yourself sometime later.

Step 2: Study the Last Paragraph of the Chapter

Now, it might come as a bit of a surprise, but you need to read the paragraph of the chapter next. This is important because it will summarize all the essential conclusions the author will draw from the chapter. If you have questions from the first paragraph that needs to be addressed, you will probably get the answers in the last paragraph.

This is helpful because it will help you identify the story structure. View the chapter as a story, and the first and last paragraphs will act as the start and end of the story. While there will be a subpoint or two along the way, and many of them will be turning points, you now know where the story is headed. This will make it easier for you to write the rest of the outline in your own words.

Step 3: Write Down the Subheadings

The next step is to extract the subheadings and write them down. Now, not every book will have subheadings. However, there is a good chance that if you are reading a nonfiction book, a research paper, or a textbook, there will be subheadings you can use. You might want to identify every subheading with Roman numerals in your outline. It would be best if you viewed these subheadings as a table of contents for your outline. If you are reading a fiction book that might not have subheadings, you can skip to the next step, similar to this one.

Step 4: Read the Topic Sentence of Every Paragraph

Next, you need to read the topic sentence of every paragraph. These topic sentences are very important because they will help you fill in the rest of the outline. As you read the topic sentences, you need to figure out how they piece together with the rest of your outline.

For example, how do the topic sentences help you draw out a roadmap? Do they contain helpful information, acting as breadcrumbs for the rest of the journey? If you are reading a book that has subheads, you should be able to link those topic sentences to the subheads. If not, that is fine too! You can write down the topic sentences in your own words and use your interpretation to link the rest of the roadmap as it unfolds.

Step 5: Read the Last Sentence of Every Paragraph

Next, you need to read the last sentence of every paragraph. You need to identify the conclusion of the paragraph and make sure you write that conclusion underneath each topic sentence or subheading that you wrote down in your outline. The last sentence should support the original first paragraph of the outline. As you fill in the last sentence, you should get a better idea of how the chapter will unfold, why each topic sentence is important, and how the chapter links together.

If something in the outline is unclear, or if you feel one paragraph is out of place, that is fine! It would be best to put a star or a mark next to the chapter in the book or your outline. As you read the chapter in-depth, you must focus on that specific paragraph in your outline. That way, you can figure out how the paragraph fits in with the rest of the chapter when you read it. If you are still unclear after that, you might need to mark the paragraph and ask someone for help.

Step 6: Read the Chapter

Now that the outline is mostly in place, it is time for you to read the chapter. With all of the outlining done, you should be able to cut through the chapter more quickly as you go. First, however, you need to pay attention to a few essential points when you read the chapter for real. They include:

  • If there are key terms, you did not include in the outline, ensure you pay attention to them. They need to make it into your outline and be sure to define them. Then, place these terms in the corresponding paragraph.
  • If there are characters you did not include in your outline but showed up in the chapter, be sure to include them. You must define their relationship with the rest of the topic.
  • If there are points of view that you did not pick up during your initial read-through of the paragraphs and topic sentences, be sure to mark how the point of view evolves in your outline.

Once this is done, you can review your outline. Make sure it is an accurate reflection of the chapter you just read.

Step 7: Mark Sources for Further Reading

Before you finalize your outline, you might want to mark down a few sources for further reading. This might not always be relevant, particularly if you are reading a fiction book, but if you are reading a non-fiction book, a textbook, or a research paper, you might want to include a few sources that you can use to review your work later. This could give you a better idea of where the information in the piece is coming from. Again, a bit of extra context can be helpful.

Reading First Method 

There are a few different ways you can construct your outline. It would be best if you were flexible as you write or construct your outline, as you might find that one method works better for some types of books than others. You might want to try different outlining methods for different genres. The method covered above is one of the most time-intensive and thorough ones. It is a written outline.

There is a firm process in place that you need to follow to construct a solid outline. On the other hand, you might be looking for something a bit more free-form. Or, you might be looking for an outlining method to save you a bit more time. Another option you might want to try is to read the chapter more efficiently. This does not mean that you will read the chapter carelessly. You also need to follow a few steps with this method. They include:

Step 1: Scan the Chapter First

The goal of the scan is to pull out the essential information. Think about the most significant objectives of the chapter you are reading. For example, if you are reading a book on the Revolutionary War, focus on the most significant events. You don’t want to get too focused on the types of shoes they were wearing, but the most prominent names and dates are more critical. The goal of scanning is to determine which material belongs in your outline.

Step 2: Focus on the Introduction and Conclusion

Focus on the introduction and conclusion when you read the chapter. These will act as signposts for the essential information to the author. If the author says, “The key point is…” this is a point that you want to include in your outline.

Step 3: Write Down Your Questions

A few questions will pop up as you read the chapter because you will not be reading every word. If you have a question, make sure to write it down. It would be best to get that question answered when you go back through the chapter to read it. You might even want to highlight it in your outline and leave a gap for the answer. That way, when you read the chapter, you have a spot to fill in the missing piece.

Maximize Your Outline

Now that you have an outline, you need to make sure you get as much use out of it as possible. Some of the tips to keep in mind include:

Review the Outline Regularly

You must review the outline regularly if you want your outline to work well. For example, you might want to spend a few minutes reading the outline when you brush your teeth in the morning. Or, you might want to spend 10-15 minutes reviewing the outline before you go to bed at night. That way, you encourage the material to stick in your head. You might even be able to work out complicated issues that evaded your understanding when you initially wrote the outline.

Customize Your Outline To Meet Your Needs

Next, you should feel free to customize the outline to meet your needs. This is particularly useful if you are using a template that was given to you by the teacher, but you find that you learn best using another method. For example, you might want to talk to others working on the same material. See if they have another interpretation of the people that could work better for you and your study purposes.

Study in the Right Environment

Finally, you must ensure that you study in the right environment. For example:

  • Do you want to have music on in the background? Or would it be too distracting for you?
  • Do you study best using an electronic outline, such as Microsoft Word? Or, do you study best when the outline is printed out?
  • Do you study best in your room? Or, do you feel more productive when you go to the library or a local coffee shop?

It would be best if you put yourself, and your outline, in the best position possible to be successful.

If you still need help, our guide to grammar and punctuation explains more.