I can’t figure out the best way to structure my non-fiction book. Where do I start?
When you are writing a book – whether it’s fiction or non-fiction – it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Where do you start? How do you know it’s going to be engaging? How in the world will you ever reach 60,000 words (or whatever word count you’re trying to achieve)? The following advice is specifically for non-fiction books and is ideal for business books.
1. Clarify what you want your book to be about
Too often, I see people overwhelmed by the sheer volume of what they think they need to cover. That’s because they know they want to write about a particular subject, but haven’t narrowed it down their book to a specific angle. That’s why it’s so important to do this at the start – then the rest of the process becomes a lot easier.
NO: “I want to write a book about parenting”
YES: “I want to write a book that helps working mothers manage a household and attend school functions without going crazy.”
NO: “I want to write a book about marketing.”
YES: “I want to write a book that helps entrepreneurs market their business online.”
During the book writing process it’s easy to go off on tangents and fall down a rabbit hole or two. But if you are clear on what you want to achieve from the very start, that’s your benchmark. You can always ask yourself: “Does including this bit of information help me achieve my goal? Or is it relevant to the specific angle of my book?”
Once you clarify what you want your book to be about, write a one-page synopsis. Or imagine that you are reading the back cover blurb of the book – and write that. Sometimes, this very act can help pull together the nebulous concepts that are swirling around in your brain and distil what you’re really trying to achieve with your writing.
2. Mindmap the key “chunks” of your book
Structuring your non-fiction book is all about making it a seamless journey for your reader from page one. That means ensuring the information you want to convey is ordered in a logical way, so it’s easy for your reader to consume and digest.
It can be hard to do this in a linear fashion. So I recommend mind-mapping. Start with the central idea of your book written in a circle in the middle of the page. From that circle, draw lines (like spokes on a wheel) out to other circles representing topics that come under your key idea. Brainstorm as many ideas as you can, including any subtopics that are relevant.
3. Determine the most logical order to present this information
When you’re done, use a highlighter or some other colour-coding tool to group together topics that are a natural fit with each other. If this is too messy, transfer each idea onto a post-it note. Stick them all on a wall and then “cluster” the post-it notes by grouping together the ones that have a similar theme. You may find that each “cluster” could become a chapter or section in your book.
Once you have your “clusters” or “chapters”, give each of them a working chapter name. Don’t worry, this isn’t set in stone, it’s just for this exercise. You can always change the chapter name later.
Write these chapter names on separate post-it notes (use a different coloured post-it differentiate them from the first set of post-its) and then rearrange them into a logical order. When you have done this, you’ll have an idea of how your book might be structured. Consider whether you’ve ordered the information in a logical way for your reader. Are there any gaps that need filling?
4. Write a description for each chapter
Take each of your “chapter post-it notes” and write at least three paragraphs on what that chapter is about. Consider: “After reading this chapter, the reader will know… [fill in a clear description on what this will be.]”
Sometimes, this exercise will show you that certain chapters aren’t worthy of being full chapters at all. At best, it’s an idea that might occupy only a page! However, this exercise may also reveal the chapters that could easily be fleshed out into two or three chapters because there is so much to cover.
5. Don’t write in isolation
Once you have an outline or structure, get some feedback on it. The key here is to get feedback from the right person. Not your mother or your best friend (unless they happen to be experts in book structure!). Find an editor, or book reviewer, or, at the very least, someone who reads a lot of books in your genre. Thus, if you’re writing a business book, don’t your opinion from someone who reads mainly thrillers!
- Does the structure of the book makes sense?
- Do the chapter descriptions make it clear what you’re trying to achieve in each one?
- Are there any obvious gaps in information?
- What else could be added to bring value to the reader?
Remember, the old adage is true. Failing to plan is planning to fail. If you start writing your non-fiction book without determining a robust structure from the start, then chances are that it’s going to take you a lot longer – and you’ll experience a lot more stress – than if you invest the time to do it from the beginning. A good structure is like the foundation of a house. If you build on shaky ground, it will either come crumbling down, or you’ll need a lot of repair work along the way to make it work.