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 to 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 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 on 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 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, the structure often presents itself in the process of organizing and reorganizing notes and in the process of writing.
Through freewriting you might begin to land on a structure that will work for this book. Or by writing chapters or sections within chapters, a structure may naturally—organically—emerge.
You may see patterns, themes, words, concepts that suggest an approach, so keep your mind open and your eyes peeled to the possiblities.
Method 2: Determine Your Book’s Structure in Advance
The second way you can land on structuring your book is by determining it in advance.
Plotters and Pantsers
In fiction we talk about plotters and pantsers. Plotters are people who plot out their novel in advance and then follow that plot pretty closely while writing.
Pantsers are people who write by the seat of their pants—it’s that discovery method they’re approaching for writing their novel.
If we were to apply this idea of plotters and pantsers to nonfiction, the pantser would be writing by discovery. You’re flying by the seat of your pants, writing your way into the structure as you work on it, letting it unfold before you.
This is a perfectly acceptable way to go about structuring your book. Pantsers may find it’s less efficient than other methods, but it can yield really rich results because they’re letting the process guide and inform what they’re doing.
The plotter approach is more like this nonfiction approach of determining your structure in advance.
Structure with Outlines
If you choose this approach to structuring your WIP, you’re like a plotter determining in advance the outline that makes sense for the ideas.
And you do this in many different methods.
Nonlinear Option: Mind Maps
Some people—especially people who resist sequential, linear thinking—like to use the mind mapping or cluster approach. You may have seen this, where somebody writes a word or a key term in the center of a giant piece of paper or white board. The video shows it in action.
In the middle of that space, you write the key word or phrase that captures the big idea of your book. Underline or circle it, and let your mind think through all of the subtopics. The subtopics could potentially become chapters in the book or paragraphs of an essay, but because you’re using a cluster effect you aren’t restricted to a linear outline.
You’re letting your mind sort of just go in whatever direction it wants to go, capturing these ideas, each subtopic spreading out from the main idea with more spokes to represent ideas and details you know you want to include.
Linear Option: Outlines and Lists
You can go the traditional route with the Roman numerals I, II, III, IV, and A, B, C, i, ii, iii.
Or you can just make lists. For that you can use regular numbers or bullet points to get your ideas out.
Whether you use paper or a whiteboard, your end result will be more linear, but you can always reorganize to land on the best order.
Before You Write, Think and Plan
It doesn’t really matter how you go about it. Use scrap paper if you don’t have a whiteboard. Make a list with bullet points if the mind map looks weird to you.
The key is to think through your idea before you write.
Revisit the research you’re doing or have done and piece it together to decide on the topics you want to tackle in light of your major concept for this book.
Once you land on that structure, write to that structure, just as a plotter will write a novel following the plot determined in advance.
Method 3: Use a Classic Structure
The third approach you can take to structuring your book is to choose a classic structure.
By classic, I mean that there are classic outlines that have stood the test of time.
Let me give you a few examples.
Classic Structure 1: Problem-Cause-Solution
The first would be Problem-Cause-Solution.
You can drop the “cause” if you want to, though in a book you have space to address the cause of a problem so the reader can learn how to eliminate it. After that, you present the solution to the problem, and most of the content would cover the solution.
Problem-Cause-Solution is a fabulous classic structure to use for nonfiction projects. You’ll find it used in marketing tactics, where people are presenting the problem, addressing the cause, and then saying, “Here’s the solution with this clever product we’re offering!”
Classic Structure 2: Past-Present-Future
Another classic structure you could grab an attempt to organize your material is Past-Present-Future.
With this pre-fab structure you look back on the history of what brought us to a certain event or pattern in our culture, identify where we’re at right now, and suggest where we should be heading—and how we can begin moving in that direction.
Play around with these structures as much as you like to make them work for you: for example, why not start with the present, then look back at the past and end by looking to the future: Present-Past-Future.
Don’t feel locked in to the order; let it inspire creativity. Play with these to make them fit your project.
Classic Structure 3: Narrative
Another classic structure you can borrow is the narrative structure. With its beginning, middle, and end, you use story to organize your material.
Obviously a narrative arc is going to work really well for a biography or a memoir, but you can actually layer a narrative arc over ideas you want to present and let the story guide the order in which you present your ideas.
Method 4: Borrow (and Adapt) Another Structure
The fourth way you can structure your book is to borrow and adapt a structure you find in another book.
Study a Book’s Structure
If you read, watch, or listen to “How to Read Like a Writer,” you’ll learn various approaches to reading that can turn a text into a tutor. While you’re practicing those techniques, you can specifically study and analyze that book’s structure.
Pay attention to books in which the author easily and effortlessly conveyed information and ideas. When you find a project that’s especially effective at drawing you into the book and walking you through the material, figure out what worked. The table of contents is a great place to start. How did they organize their chapters?
Be careful not to plagiarize choices. If you copy an author’s unusual structure exactly, you’re no longer using it for inspiration. Yet there are a limited number of ways books can be organized, so study and be inspired.
Borrow from Other Genres
When you’re reading in a genre other than your own, pay attention—you may discover an idea to adapt and experiment with.
Let’s just say you come across a biography that organizes the subject’s life in seasons or months of the year. You would not have thought about that for your leadership book, but you realize it might work.
Adapt it. Borrow the structure and adapt it to fit your completely different project.
Maybe you won’t use months but that biography caused you to play with reordering your content around a four-part structure using Q1, Q2, Q3, and Q4, which could work great for a leadership book with readers who organize their business by quarterly goals.
And the structure no longer resembles the biography, which was organized by by seasons or months. Seeing the months inspired you to re-imagine how your content could flow using a completely new approach.
Borrow and adapt to avoid plagiarizing; find inspiration and adapt as needed.
Restructure at Any Point in the Creative Process
Whether you’re at the beginning of formulating your book’s concept or you’re halfway through and decide the structure is just not working, test these methods to organize or reorganize.
A complete restructuring will feel laborious but can be worth it when you land on one that allows your readers to grasp your concepts and be transformed.
Rather than just grabbing the first idea that comes to your mind, play around with these different kinds of structures to find the support you need to convey your ideas with clarity and confidence.
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- How to Read Like a Writer
- QWERTY interview with Elizabeth Rosner
- Writer’s Digest‘s Michael Lewis interview
- Are Outlines a Writer’s Greatest Gift…or Curse? (more detail on the classic Past-Present-Future outline)
- Try This Classic Structure for Your Next Nonfiction Writing Project (more on the classic Problem-Cause-Solution outline)
- Susan Orlean on Pacing, Structure, and ‘The Library Book’ (Episode 121, The Creative Nonfiction Podcast)
- Cordell, Carten. “Immersive Nonfiction & Idea Generation with ‘The Fifth Risk’ Author Michael Lewis.” Writer’s Digest, Active Interest Media, 20 Nov. 2018, www.writersdigest.com/writing-articles/research-nonfiction-narratives-idea-generation-with-the-big-short-author-michael-lewis.
- Smith, Marion Roach. “Where We Get Writing Inspiration, with Writer and Author Elizabeth Rosner.” QWERTY | Memoir Coach and Author Marion Roach, 22 Aug. 2020, marionroach.com/2020/08/where-we-get-writing-inspiration-with-elizabeth-rosner/.
- O’Meara, Brendan. “Episode 121-Susan Orlean on Pacing, Structure, and ‘The Library Book’.” Episode 121-Susan Orlean on Pacing, Structure, and ‘The Library Book’ – Home of The Creative Nonfiction Podcast, 7 Apr. 2020, brendanomeara.com/orlean121/. Beginning at the 32:00 mark.
Note: This post content has been modified slightly from the audio transcript to tighten and clarify.