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How to Structure Your Nonfiction Book

by Sarah Anderson, editor

Structuring your nonfiction manuscript can sound scary, but really, it can be easy. It’s all a matter of finding the best way to think it through. A technique that works well for self-help books can be useful for any nonfiction. Self-help writers know their topics well, but they are usually not people who have devoted their lives to mastering the skills of writing.

Begin by imagining that you are giving a one-day workshop on your topic. (Actually, workshops and talks are a good way to promote your topic and sales of your book.) I have given many workshops, and I have learned that, first, you tell participants what you plan to cover, and at the end of the day, you tell them what you have covered. This way, they feel satisfied that you have delivered on your promise and that it has been a worthwhile day for them. The same applies to your book. First, you will introduce the topic (Introduction), emphasizing how readers can use and benefit from your topic. You will also have a final chapter that sums up what you have presented and how to effectively use it in the future. You now have your beginning and your ending.

A one-day workshop amounts to 6 hours of presentation time, 3 hours in the morning session and 3 in the afternoon, including times for Q&A. So, after your introduction, what is the next thing you would need to cover? Continue by jotting down the various topics. Don’t worry about the order at this stage.

Let’s say you have written a book on understanding different work styles for better teamwork. Here are the topics you plan to cover: Identifying your style, hot buttons of each style, what the different work styles are and how to spot them in the workplace, key motivations of each style, your team’s strengths and weaknesses based on the mix of styles, creating communication openings with each style, overcoming barriers to cooperation, the value each style offers the team.

Once you have listed all the topics you can think of, what order would be best for your presentation? Well, first, participants would need to know what the work styles are—how many there and how they are alike and how they are different. That would equip them, with your guidance, to identify their own style. Next, they could learn how to (provisionally) identify the other styles and learn what motivates each of them. This would equip them to create a visual of the types on their team, the styles that predominate, and which are missing. Each style’s hot buttons and communication openings would be discussed next. Finally, participants could create a plan for future effectiveness. Now you have your structure:

  • Introduction: How you will benefit from this book
  • Work styles: How they are alike and how they are different
  • What motivates each work style?
  • How to identify your work style
  • How to (provisionally) recognize others’ work styles
  • Team analysis (types that predominate and types that are missing)
  • Hot buttons and communication openings
  • Plan for future effectiveness, as individuals and as a team

Laid out this way, creating a structure seems obvious and straightforward, but based on manuscripts I receive, it isn’t. In one manuscript, I came upon an exercise that instructed readers to use material that, when I finally found it, appeared later in the book.
As you write or revise, insert interesting headers to pique curiosity, keep readers from getting bogged down, and make it easy for them to refer to gems of knowledge they have already read.

Provide exercises to help the reader absorb and apply your guidance.

Provide real-life examples. Readers love them.

Use a chart or a table to give an overview of complex material. It doesn’t have to be fancy, just clear.

If your topic is based on a model, provide a diagram of that model. Give reference materials, perhaps a work style quiz, handouts of work-style hot buttons and communication openings, and a chart of work styles identifying their strengths and weaknesses.

Voila! You have your self-help book!

Sarah Anderson is an experienced editor of nonfiction self-help books.

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