Book Publishing Specialists
How to Structure a Nonfiction BookJuly 06, 2010 by Kat Gautreaux, Account Manager
Publishing a book is a rewarding task. Writing a book, however, can be an overwhelming one. Learning how to structure your nonfiction book project will help you organize your thoughts and write an excellent book.
There are several ways to structure your nonfiction book: using the table of contents as an outline, chronologically, and using a traditional storyline structure. By deciding how you want to proceed, you can easily begin writing within the chosen framework.
Table of Contents
One way to structure your nonfiction book is to create a table of contents before you’ve even penned your first chapter. By creating an outline of what you want to write, you’ll easily create your roadmap of what you need to write. If you find yourself straying away from the topics you’ve sketched out, you may want to take a step back from your project and decide if you’ve chosen the right topic for your book, or if maybe one book will not be enough to contain you ideas and that you should consider writing a series of books rather than one all-encompassing book.
Chronology is a great way to structure a nonfiction book. Chronology, although generally about time, can also be thought of as building levels. If you are writing about, for example, how to use a computer program, you may want to begin with the basics of the program like how to open a new project in the program. As your chapters continue, you can add levels of steps and complexity to the basics. For a book about parenting, however, you can focus on actual time increments, such as infants, toddlers, young adults, etc.
A nonfiction book that a chronological outline seems natural for (but which is often a bad choice) is memoirs. Writing about a life from birth to present day is an easy way to organize a memoir. However, it can be tedious for a reader and can be an overwhelming subject to write about. Remember it took living a whole life to get to the present day. It will feel like a lifetime reading it. For memoirs, a traditional story structure would be beneficial.
You may be structuring a nonfiction memoir, but the classic structure of storytelling—whether fiction of nonfiction—is perfect for your life story. Structure your book to begin with the beginning problem that needs to be solved. You were born is not a problem. But maybe your father’s medical practice that took him away from the family for long hours is the motivator for your personality. That would be your problem to be solved.
Then you would explain all the adversities and joys that propelled you to your climax. Then you would explain what you (and the reader) learned from it.
This structure works for more than just memoirs. By framing your book about sales techniques with similar story arcs—problem to be solved, missteps along the way, how you solved it, what you learned—you create a compelling nonfiction book that reads like a novel.
Recipe for Nonfiction
Another way to structure your nonfiction book is by using a step-by-step approach. Think of it as a recipe for your thesis. You want to teach how to do something, so your book would educate your reader using step-by-step chapters outlining the information to be gained. This is a great way to write how-to books from technology to diet and fitness. The reader can easily find their place in the learning curve and use the book as a resource for the future.
One last way to structure a book is by topic.
Topic by Topic
If you are covering a subject that has many individual sections that do not necessarily go together, for example, the animals of Africa, you may want to structure your book by the types of animals that live there such as hunters and runners. Wouldn’t “Claws,” “Hooves,” “Horns,” and “Just Plain Big” would be compelling titles for chapters? Not only would they draw smirks from your readers, but they can help you organize your writing by narrowing your focus for each section to animals that fit within those categories.
Writing the nonfiction book can be a challenge. Unlike fiction books, which often suffer from a lack of imagination at times, the nonfiction book can be difficult because the writer has too much information to share and no framework in which to confine it.
By developing the structure of your nonfiction book before you write, you’ll be able to better visualize your next step and focus your writing in an organized fashion.
This is so helpful to me because I’m struggling with writing a book on the African Choral Music Composers of the 19th to early 20thC in the Eastern Cape, SA. I’ve selected 10 of these icons to profile them. Obviously their lives seem to have followed the same pattern because all of them were products of the missionaries during colonisation. I’ve made each profile the chapter of my book which means them I have 10 chapters excluding intro and conclusion. How do I break the monotony? Please help.posted on 2/5/2014 by Mpumi Bikitsha
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