Structure in Non-Fiction Writing: Why is it important?

This is one of those areas where I consider myself an expert of the “What NOT to Do” variety. I made the mistake of writing the first draft of my non-fiction book before I’d mapped out it’s structure, and the result was a convoluted mess that took me nearly a year (and several re-writes) to fix. So, having been through the ringer and come out the other side, I have developed a sincere appreciation for the importance of building a definable and recognizable structure into a nonfiction book before starting to write it.

I am a firm believer that structure is a necessary component of any well-written book. The analogy that works for me is that if the book is a body, the structural elements are the “bones” upon which everything else hangs. Without those bones, there’s no leverage, no strength, nothing solid. Without structure, you end up with little more than a pile of meat.

This is easy enough to understand in fiction writing (and even story-driven nonfiction such as memoirs or biographies). Good story-telling is always structured around a plot, the chronological progression from one event to the next. Without a solid plot you really don’t have a story at all. No matter how compelling the characters may be or how unique or interesting the world they inhabit, without a plot, there’s nothing solid to anchor them onto. There isn’t any way for readers to engage. In story-driven writing, the plot serves as the structure, the bones around which everything else is built and (forgive the pun) fleshed out.

But what do you do when the book you want to write isn’t a story? What if you’re writing a self-help book, a how-to, or a persuasive argument? What if you can’t rely on chronology or the progression of events to create those bones upon which to hang your book? Is there a way to create a structure within books that don’t tell a story? Does structure really matter then?

Yes there is. And yes it does.

In fact, I would argue that creating a solid structure for your non-fiction writing may be the most important factor you can consider before you begin your first draft. A well-structured book will not only engage the reader, but it will also draw them in. It will help them to recognize, follow, and retain your argument. It will make your book infinitely more readable, more persuasive, and more memorable.

Why? Because readers expect to follow where an author leads them, but they don’t like to follow blindly. Readers of non-fiction expect the author to explain beforehand where it is that they are being led. They want and frankly demand that you as an author give them a hint as to where they are going before they will agree to take the journey with you.

Think back to Jr. High English class, and the rules you learned about how to write an essay. For many of us this was probably our first introduction into non-story-driven writing. If your English teacher was half as awesome as mine was (shout out to Mrs. Bresmer!) then you will probably turn 112 long before you forget the three rules of essay writing:

1. Tell your reader what you’re going to talk about

2. Talk about it

3. Tell them what you’ve just been talking about

It’s all about building familiarity, trust, and comfort for the reader. A strong non-fiction structure builds anticipation. It creates expectation. And it gives the readers the tools that they need to engage with the material that you present to them in each section of your book as a part of a greater whole.

Just like a plot serves to create and fulfill expectations in a story, a well structured non-fiction book will give the reader an expectation of what they will be reading. It does this by building anticipation, creating questions that need answers, and offering a large-scale overview of the subject matter long before it delves into the details.

From there a well-structured book will begin to fulfill those expectations in a familiar and comfortable way. It will begin to answer the questions, to address the issues, to solve the problems. But it will always do it in a way that feels like a logical progression of the same argument or discussion.

That’s not always easily done, especially without the convenience of chronology to lean on. That is why it is so important to consider your book’s structure BEFORE you being to write.

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