Your book contains some of your best ideas. But do those ideas add up to a streamlined, compelling manuscript… or a pile of disorganized thoughts? When you’re outlining your nonfiction book, it’s easy to get so caught up in the content that you neglect to plan the book’s overarching structure. This can be a real problem because many readers will give up in frustration when faced with a book that forces them to work too hard to understand it.
So how should you structure your book? Of course you could always just move through your material chapter by chapter, beginning with foundational concepts and getting into the finer points as you work your way toward the end of the book. But have you thought about the relationship between those chapters, and how they might be organized to create a better reading experience? By taking a little time to analyze your content, you can often come up with a clever organizing principle that makes it easier for readers to digest your information and keeps them turning pages.
Non-fiction book formats to try
1. THE LIST
A classic device favoured by click-bait bloggers everywhere, the list is a tried and trusty tool to engage readers. Lists are irresistible because they seem to offer simple solutions to complex problems, and they stimulate curiosity. (We just have to know what those five foods are that we should never eat again!) They are just as effective in a book as in a blog post, as a glance at any bookshelf will prove. See The 7 Habits of Successful People by Stephen Covey, The 5 Love Languages by Gary D. Chapman, and many others. Of course, this approach only works if your material authentically lends itself to being presented as a series of similar items, such as principles, lessons learned, types or myths. If so, consider building your book concept and title around its listy qualities. It might just be your ticket to a spot on the bestseller, uh, list.
2. THE OLD “ONE-TWO-THREE”
This reader-friendly format is especially well suited to books that offer a new interpretation of a familiar idea, or a new set of solutions for an old problem. Chapters are grouped into parts, each of which focuses on a cohesive set of ideas that sets it apart from the others.
Part One is often used for sharing background information or identifying the status quo. You’ll describe the problem that you intend to solve, and explain its causes, its terrible impact on the world, and common myths and misunderstandings about it.
Part Two is the heart of the book in which you will present your solution. Explain your theory, plot out your methodology, and back it up with case studies or research findings. This section will usually be thicker than the first or final parts, and may comprise a list (see, we can’t get away from them!) of steps or stages that your solution entails.
If Part Two is the “What to do” section, Part Three is all about “How to do it”: explain how the reader should apply your fantastic new method or system to their own lives. Help them to analyze their position, determine which aspects of your advice are most relevant to them, and offer advice on how to get started with their new skills.
Of course, you don’t need to stop at three parts; many books have four or more. Depending on your material, your Part Four might include a chapter on dealing with special situations, finding resources, or troubleshooting when you stall.
3. THE MULTIFACETED EXAMINATION
This is a great format for any book that has a simple yet powerful message at its heart, because it allows the author to reinforce that simple statement in every single chapter. In Arianna Huffington’s book On Becoming Fearless, she explores the idea of fearlessness (naturally) through a broad range of themes. The chapter titles speak for themselves: Fearless About the Body, Fearless at Work, Fearless in Parenting, to name a few. There’s no mistaking what this book is about: the key word is in each and every chapter title. By the the end of the book, the reader has derived a satisfying and comprehensive understanding of the subject, having explored it thoroughly from every angle.
4. IDEAS AND EXERCISES
This type of book is a bit like a mullet haircut: business in the front, party in the back! In the first section, you spell out your theory in a textbook-like manner, while the second half puts your ideas on their feet through exercises, recipes or project instructions. This is especially useful for books that introduce a new methodology or philosophy. For example, Crazy Sexy Juice by Kris Carr opens with a hefty section outlining the health benefits of juicing and a guide to equipment, followed by a bundle of juicy recipes. A book on soap-making might open with a history of the craft and an overview of basic tools and techniques, before diving into scent or colour blends. In Dai Manuel’s Whole Life Fitness Manifesto, the author shares his holistic view of lifestyle wellbeing, followed by a detailed breakdown of exercises and a workout plan. This is perfect if you want your readers to embrace your perspective as well as take action.
5. THEMES AND VARIATIONS
This type of book is portioned into themed sections, each of which is further divided into shorter mini-chapters that may or may not appear in the table of contents. This is a very common format for “big idea” books that don’t follow a chronological order or storytelling narrative. Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert, uses this format. It comprises six weighty parts, each devoted to a different aspect of creativity, such as courage, enchantment, and persistence. Each of those parts is further divided into numerous small essays on that theme.
You can see a fun twist on the same format in The 4-Hour Workweek, Tim Ferriss’s guide to starting and operating an internet-based business that can be run from anywhere in the world. The book’s big sections are named for the phases of life transformation that he aims to take readers through: Definition, Elimination, Automation, and Liberation, with each phase full of shorter subsections. (Notice that their initial letters spell the word DEAL? A fun inside joke designed to put a smile on the reader’s face while underscoring the book’s promise of success.) This nesting of smaller subsections within hefty chapters is great for books whose ideas don’t fit within the problem-solution-application structure of the aforementioned “One-Two-Three”.
RULES ARE MADE TO BE BROKEN
Of course this isn’t a comprehensive list; there are as many ways to organize a book as there are titles in the library. Instead of trying to squeeze your manuscript into one of the formats given here, use these suggestions as a jumping off point for organizing your book. Dig into your material, get creative and don’t be afraid to put your own spin on it. But no matter what structure you use, make sure you do include one–nobody wants to read “Robert Greene’s Countless Disorganized Laws of Power”!
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