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Structure: The Roadmap of a Good Non-Fiction Book

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OK, so you have an idea for a book that’s exciting. You’ve done much of your research on the
topic, and feel ready to get started with the writing. Just what are your options for structuring your
book? This article will cover some classic structures that have worked again and again for nonfiction
I’m a firm believer in charting your course before the writing begins. It will save you time and
give your work flow and cohesiveness. A case in point: An author friend of mine likes to be more
spontaneous and as a result overwrites. Though she was published in the past year by a New York house,
it took her 10 years to complete her psychology book. I have to wonder how much extra effort she
expended because she didn’t carefully plot out what she wanted to write about ahead of time.
In contrast, this summer I wrote a soon-to-be-published book in just three and a half months. My
chapters were clearly in place before the writing began. Though the order of the chapters eventually
changed and a particular chapter emerged as a better choice for concluding the book, I knew what I had
to cover when I sat down and started to write. This was the result of conceptual work that had been
completed earlier.

Your Table of Contents
The Table of Contents is the basic outline of your book (in other words, its structure). It
provides a roadmap for you as an author and shows where you will travel in the realm of ideas. Your
chapters should accurately address the important topics covered in the manuscript. Eventually you will
also structure your individual chapters with subheads that will show a sense of progress through those
sections of the book too.

Classic Structures
Writing is after all a creative process, and different authors will give their own particular spin
to books that cover the same topic. Therefore you will probably find that more than one structure
would work with your idea. However it’s likely that one particular structure will make the most sense
and best support the information you want to present.
If we look at structure as a roadmap than we can think of what type of tour we want to give the
reader through our material. Here are the classic “travel packages.”

Chronological Order: This structure comes from a long line of oral story-telling. It travels
through time as events emerge. A successful example of a book that utilizes this structure would beAnd the Band Played On by Randy Shilts. The author was a reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle
during a time when AIDS first begin to be recognized as a health threat to society. In his book,
Shilts walks the reader through the initial cases and the response from public officials. Types of
books that use chronological structure include histories, biographies, and investigative reporting.

Classifications: Here the author divides the topic into categories. For instance, an author
writing a horoscope book might start with an overview chapter, follow this up with one chapter for
each individual sign, and then conclude the book with a summary or kickoff chapter. Another example
would be Wayne W. Dyer’s Wisdom of the Ages: A Modern Master Brings Eternal Truths into Everyday
. Dyer’s book presents the ideas of 40 of the greatest thinkers of the past 25 centuries. Wisdom
of the Ages begins with an Introduction containing Dyer’s reflections on what is to follow. Each
subsequent chapter covers a different thinker (from Buddha to Omar Khayyam to Elizabeth Barrett
Browning to Henry David Thoreau to Dorothy Parker). The last chapter is a compilation of thoughts from
Dyer himself.

Step-By-Step Progression: An author using this structure presents the more easily understood
information first, then builds by adding chapters containing material of increasing complexity. Thus
the earlier chapters serve as a foundation for the ideas that follow. Or (perhaps in a how-to book)
the author may introduce concepts in the order that the reader would use or learn them. The
best-seller In the Meantime: Finding Yourself and the Love You Want by Iyanla Vanzant is built on a
loose step-by-step structure. Using the idea of moving up into different levels of a house, Vanzant
explains how to progress from “basement” thinking and relating to “the third floor of love’s house.”

Literary Form: Another option for nonfiction writers is to borrow the literary order used in some
novels and screenplays. Here the book begins with an inciting incident. As the author (or the main
real-life character covered in the book) attempts to solve a problem, matters only become worse.
Finally, the book culminates with the author (character) handling the problem and learning something
in the process. A nonfiction book with this structure is Running the Amazon by Joe Kane. It chronicles
the challenges and difficulties experienced by a hand-picked group of adventurers as they attempt to
navigate the world’s longest river from source to mouth. Kane is brought along to write about the
expedition but soon becomes more deeply involved. Nonfiction that can fall into the literary structure
category includes biography and personal essay.

Of course, there are other structures beyond those described in this article. Yet I think you will
find that many are offshoots of the ones I’ve covered here.

Traveling with a Map
When you go on a car trip to the mountains, desert, or ocean, it only makes sense to study the map
beforehand and plot a course. Are you in the mood for a drive along the backroads or do time
constraints demand that you travel the interstate? In the same way, when you structure your book, you
decide what kind of experience you will provide for the reader, what territory will be covered, and
what the destination will be. Of course, you want to remain flexible if additional stops (chapters)
will enhance the journey. But you can avoid traveling down deadends if you give yourself time to
thoroughly think through which structure will best serve your work.

Robin Quinn is a writer and editor who lives in Los Angeles. Through her editorial firm, Word for
Word, she offers developmental consulting, manuscript analysis, substantive editing, content editing,
copyediting, and copywriting services. Word for Word also provides support for independent publishers
through all phases of book production. For more information, call 310/838-7098 or e-mailquinnrobin@aol.com.

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This article is from thePMA Newsletterfor December, 1999, and is reprinted with
permission of Publishers Marketing Association.

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