230: How to Structure Your Nonfiction Book
You’re tackling a non-fiction book and you’re making progress. You’re doing research, you’re writing, and now you’re staring at all those ideas.
Your book needs form. It needs organization. It needs…structure.
But how do you land on the best structure? How do you create it, craft it, build it?
While there’s no one standard way to organize your material—there’s no one way to structure your nonfiction book—I offer four approaches you can take to determine what will work best for your work in progress.
To learn ways to structure your nonfiction book, you can read, watch, or listen.
Think about how different kinds of bridges are needed for different situations. To land on the best method of bridging a ravine or body of water, an engineer will study the surrounding landscape and obstacles to decide whether a drawbridge, suspension bridge, or arch bridge will work best.
Just as an engineer needs to study the situation to address any given crossing and can refer to several core types of bridges, you get to do the same with your book.
As you study your material, you get to decide the best way to structure your nonfiction book.
Feel free apply these four approaches to structure your short-form writing, but I’m going to be talking about it as it pertains to a non-fiction book, because a book is more unwieldy and can feel a little overwhelming to organize. Once you get a handle on how you to structure your WIP, you can feel more confident moving forward with your draft.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by structure, you’re in good company. In a Writer’s Digest interview, Michael Lewis said this:
I agonize over structure. I’m never completely sure I got it right. Whether you sell the reader on turning the page is often driven by the structure. Every time I finish a book, I have this feeling that, Oh, I’ve done this before. So it’s going to be easier next time. And every time it’s not easier. Each time is like the first time in some odd way, because it is so different.1
The book you’re working now is different from any other book you’ve worked on. It’s different from Michael Lewis. It’s different from mine.
You need to discover what that the best structure for this book.
Method 1: Discovery
The first way is by discovery.
Through the discovery approach, you’re going to write your way into it.
On her podcast QWERTY, Marion Roach Smith recently interviewed Elizabeth Rosner about her book Survivor Café. Elizabeth Rosner chose different terms and concepts and horrors related to the Holocaust and presented them early on in the book using the alphabet.
The alphabet was a way of structuring that content.
Rosner said the alphabet was a way to explain, “Here are all the things I’m going to talk about that I don’t really know how to talk about. Here are all the words I don’t know how to explain.”
Marion asked how she arrived at this alphabet structure, and here’s what Rosner said:
I love getting to talk about structure and decisions. And when we talk about them after they’ve been made, it all seems so thoughtful and careful and deliberate and…everything in reality is so messy and chaotic for me, that it’s always amazing to me how neat and coherent it seems afterwards.2
You can see that Rosner sort of stumbled on this approach. It serves as an alternative table of contents for the book, she said, and of course a table of contents reflects the structure of a book. And she came upon by discovery.
Discovery Methods: Sticky Notes, Scrivener, Index Cards, freewriting
Authors might use Post-its to organize their notes.
Susan Orlean has described an index card method (she uses 5×7 cards) in an interview.3
Others like using Scrivener to organize their research and notes.
It doesn’t really matter the method; you just need to gradually move toward clarity. When you stay open to possibilities,