Structure in Non-Fiction Writing: How do I build it?

Don’t worry. This is not one of those posts where I get all technical and break down rules of paragraph structure and other yawn-inducing tedium. Rather, this post will (I hope) get you thinking in a “structural” way about how to write and organize your book.

In my last post: Structure in Non-Fiction Writing: Why is it Important? I talked about how necessary an overt structure is to the non-fiction (specifically non-story-driven) reader. We kept it simple, bringing things back to the basic rules of writing an essay:

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

2. Talk about it

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

But it’s important to realize WHY these rules exist, and what function they serve in the scope of a larger written work. Because if you’re writing 75,000 words on a topic, you’re going to need more than an introduction and a conclusion to tie the whole thing together. But these rules work for the same reason that your book structure is going to work – because the repetition creates a familiarity for the reader that makes their reading experience easier and more enjoyable.

Think of your book as a song that your readers are listening to for the first time. You don’t expect them to know the words. You want them to like the song, to settle into listening to it without having their concentration broken or jarred by something unexpected or unpleasant. By the time they get half way through they should know (more or less) what the chorus sounds like, and should be able to recognize it when it’s played again. It’s the melody (the structure) that creates the repetition and familiarity. The melody is what makes a good song easy to listen to, even if you’ve never heard it before. Yes the lyrics have to be amazing (you have to write well) and you want the message to be something that stirs people (you should be writing about a topic that you’re passionate about). But if the melody isn’t there (if you don’t create a strong structure within your book) nobody’s going to care to listen to it for very long.

Ok, so we know that structure is going to be important. But how do we actually build it into our books? Well there are two different steps that you can take.

First, (and yes, this is the part that you’ve already thought of) you need to organize your topic into a logical and easy-to-follow format. Create an outline for the material you want to cover, but make sure that you’re organizing the data in a way that’s going to make sense to your reader. Keep in mind that there’s normally more than one way to do this. If you’re writing a how-to book (how to build a computer from scratch, how to self-publish your book) you could organize it chronologically (do this than that) or by sub-category (a section on writing, one on editing, etc.). Similarly, if you’re writing a book on the practical application of a theory (building a godly marriage, let’s say, or raising healthy kids), you will have to decide how to balance the theory and the practical advice. Do you explain the theory first and then break down the practical application in a separate section of the book? Or do you try to create subcategories and address theory and application for each category at the same time?

The point is that you have a lot of decisions to make, probably more than you realize, about how to organize your data. But the important thing is to make a decision. Pick a structure and then stick to it. This is also the point in  your structure-building that you’ll have to deal with the outliers – the points or issues that don’t fit nicely into the flow of an outline. Figure out how to handle them now. Find a place to fit them. It will save you headaches down the road.

Second, after you’ve thought about how you want to organize your data, it is time for you to consider how you can build familiarity and patterns into the format of your individual sections or chapters of your book. In other word, what can you do to make one chapter feel and sound and flow like another? How can you tie these thousands of words together so that they function as a cohesive unit rather than a simple stream of thoughts and ideas? This is where you can let yourself get creative and allow your personality to shine through.

Do you want to include an analogy in each chapter? What about an anecdote? If you are writing a how to, are you making reference to the big picture in each section of your book? Are there larger themes running through each chapter? How can you make them stronger without belaboring the point? Are all of your chapters structured in the same way? Do they follow repeating and recognizable patterns?

This was my biggest failing when I first sat down to write my book. My subject matter (it fits best into the theory-into-practice category) was a tricky one. So before I started the book I tackled the fundamentals of the data outline. My material flowed in a “logical” pattern. And each of my individual chapters covered a subject that clearly related back to the main point of the book. But as it turned out, that wasn’t enough to take my discussion of the subject and turn it into a book. No matter how many times I re-wrote, or how strongly I tied each chapter back to the opening section on “theory”, the individual chapters themselves were not cohesive. There was no flow, no built-in anticipation that fed readers from one chapter to the next.

Finding a solution to this problem proved tricky. I ended up having to create what I called a “chapter checklist”, which basically functioned as a very rigid outline that every chapter had to follow. It had to start with a reference to A, continue on with an anecdotal story, move into a reference to B, and then get into practical points 1, 2, and 3, etc. etc. etc. The process of taking my pre-written material and fitting it into a structure after the fact was brutal. It took a lot of time. It also meant that I had to re-write entire chapters, completely remove others, and add a significant amount of material to almost all of them. It was painful and difficult, but it made all the difference in the world. It transformed my book from rambling to readable, all because I gave the readers a recognizable pattern to follow.

So if you get anything out of this post please let it be this – don’t make the same mistakes I did. Don’t create an outline and think you’re done building the structure of your book. If you’re writing non-fiction, especially something that isn’t story driven, you will save yourself a lot of sweat and suffering if you will just take the time to address the issues of structure BEFORE you begin to write.

And for those of you who think that I’m crazy, who are convinced that you can write an amazing book without planning the structure ahead of time … well, maybe you’re right. Maybe my severely logical brain just failed me on this occasion. But remember this: it is entirely possible for you to take your free-flowing poetry and set it to music if you want to. But it will be a lot easier and sound a lot better if you start with the music and write the words to fit into the structure you’ve already created.


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