Brain Dumping to Create Your Table of Contents

Are you ready to write your book but are all of your ideas running together in your head? How does one even begin to organize all of their thoughts? If you are a right-brained person, you probably use outlines with bullet points and love them. Left-brained people often shudder at the thought! Outlines are so formal. So constricting.

Traditional outlines are so formal. So constrictive. Try brain dumping today! (Tweet)

Instead, I work with clients to brain dump anything that might end up in their book. It may not all make it in, but everything gets saved for a future work. Once the ideas are all in place visually, creatives find it easier for the project to take shape. That shape is the table of contents, even though it doesn’t yet look like one. Themes will emerge, sub-topics will emerge, and a title or subtitle may even emerge. Topic A might be related to topic B. Topic B might be a sub-point of topic A. The structure of the book starts to take shape this way easier for creatives, often, than trying to write a formal outline.

Brain dumping could not be easier. All you need are a piece of paper, a writing instrument, a timer, and a topic, which can be either broad or specific. Seriously, that’s it. Set the timer for three or even five minutes (the trick is a short enough period of time so that the task doesn’t feel overwhelming), and just start writing. You can, of course, keep writing when the timer beeps. I bet you’ll be surprised by how much you wrote once you got started.

Many moons ago I wrote a career guide to becoming a book editor, part of a series by a career services firm. This was my initial brain dump on the broad topic of “becoming a book editor.”

I did an initial brain dump, then took a break and did another one. After that I studied it to see where I could find similar topics that could be grouped together. I like to do this with colored pencils or markers, but I’ve seen it done in other ways, too. Here’s what my next step looked like:

Do you see how it all starts to come together? I now had some clear categories, which became chapters in the book: types of editors, types of employers, editorial skills, and education.

I didn’t save them, but I did braindumps for each chapter of the book. For example, the types of employers brain dump consisted of the following subsections: book publishers, book packagers, and literary agents. “Book publishers” was then broken down further: big publishers in NYC, big publishers outside of NYC, regional publishers, niche publishers, and small publishers. Then within each of those, I listed examples of publishing companies.

You can go as far into detail as you want with the brain-dumping process. The more in depth you go, the more information you have to pull from when it’s time to write. And that’s the whole point: making the writing easier. Instead of looking at a blank piece of paper or computer screen, you have an outline ready to go — without ever writing an actual outline! Is your mind racing with more ideas? It is time to get started with your brain dumping!


I’d love to hear how you start the writing process in the comments below.