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Taming the ideas: structuring your nonfiction book

...the clearer and more compelling the structure you can provide for your reader along the way, the more likely you are to achieve your purpose.

Following on from my previous blog on the Hero’s Journey as one overarching narrative structure, here’s a way of getting started with structure for narrative non-fiction.

Every single one of The Expert Author participants reported struggling with a structure for their book before they joined and they found this one of the most practical and helpful parts of the course – when you can pull all your disparate ideas into a coherent whole, when the pieces of your argument and evidence fall into place and flow naturally to the conclusion you’ve been trying to articulate, when the balance between sections is right and you can give your reader clear and consistent signposts to help them navigate through your content and identify the piece they need to read Right Now, it’s a beautiful thing. And it doesn’t happen by accident. You need a carefully measured blend of divergent and convergent thinking, and a dash of discipline.

So where do you start? For the divergent thinking phase I suggest a free-form mind-map. Don’t just write your ideas down tamely on an A4 piece of paper: use post-it notes and as much wall space as you can commandeer over a period of a few days. Scribble each thought or topic on a separate post-it, with as much detail as you can manage (you’ll be surprised how quickly you forget what that cryptic single word meant), stick them on the wall and keep turning things over in your mind while you run, shower, sort laundry – whenever you’re engaged in one of those occupations that allows your mind to drift unhindered. (Agatha Christie had it right: ‘The best time for planning a book is while you’re doing the dishes.’) Don’t try and close things down prematurely – keep your mind open and accepting, keep coming up with ideas and letting the ideas you’ve already had trigger more in their turn. If you can manage a week in this expansive, exploratory phase, so much the better.

Once the ideas have dried up, it’s time to start with the convergent thinking. Stand back and take a long hard look at what you’ve got. Start moving post-its around to group related concepts together (this is where you’ll be thankful you didn’t just write on a sheet of paper). This is contents-page planning from the ground up: the clusters you identify will become your chapter or section headings, and there will almost certainly be a natural sequence or logic to help you order them.

(There will probably be outliers – ideas that aren’t quite right for this book: don’t lose these, stick them in a ‘pending’ file to be used as blog posts, marketing campaigns, interviews, even a future book.)

The structure of your work doesn’t stop there of course – you’ll want to identify consistent elements within your chapters so that you can signpost the reader through your content, for example – but it’s a great place to start.

Non-fiction writers have a purpose – to instruct, persuade, inspire, whatever – and the clearer and more compelling the structure you can provide for your reader along the way, the more likely you are to achieve that purpose.

Tags: structure | books | nonfiction

This entry was posted on 17 December 2014 at 22:38 and is filed under publishing | writing | books | Taming the Ideas. You can leave a response here.

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